The film Cell 211is described as a film about a prison riot in a Spanish Prison. But this film, which has won over 25 awards, is so much more as we see how quickly the ‘they’ and ‘us’ divide can be crossed when experiences are shared. The basis is when a new guard, visiting the prison in street clothes the day before starting officially is injured in the ‘secure’ wing and left behind in Cell 211 by the guards giving him the tour. With no ID, and injured, he is assumed to be the ‘new guy’ and brought to the leader of the riot. He teeters between the uncertainty of being a new face but also bonding with the prisoner leader as together they face problems, endure tragedy and swap stories during the waiting and the down times. This film reminds me of Carandiru, a Brazilian film about a true story regarding conditions in a prison in Brazil. Carandiru is from the viewpoint of the one doctor of the prison holding over 7,000 prisoners who tries to being to treat prisoners with humanity but also deal with the rampant AIDS within the walls of the Carandiru prison until when a protest riot breaks out.
Both films shed a light on the complexity, problems and self delusions of prisons. North America, given up on reform, now has the highest per capita prison and felon population in the world. Prisoners, besides being cheap labor from call centers to chain gangs feature often in TV ‘reality’ shows from the point of view of the guards as we see prisoners kept in kennels, beaten, taunted. Many watch as entertainment real people being dehumanized: the 2.5% of the USA population.
Both films show outsiders who end up experiencing the prison from the inmate’s viewpoint and try, experiencing less and less possibilities for any control, to advocate in a system which is both a entrenched bureaucracy AND a dictatorship (of the Prison Warden). A system where individuals have no voice, and it is only AFTER a riot can one side be heard at all. Both films show how those who are supposed to be ‘in charge’ are often reacting instead of acting, and driven by emotion instead of reason. The underlying fear of loss of control increases the reaction of those in change. This escalates into the extreme lengths that the prison system and minister of justice or the interior go to in order to convince themselves that almost any action is right, if it is one that gives them the belief they are in control.
I read a quote that stayed with me: that the guard is as bound to the prisoner as the prisoner is to the guard, neither free. And it seems true, unless you believe that a person can watch or participate with violence, paranoia, abuse of power, and sadism but somehow put that down and walk away from it for an evening before picking it up to wear, along with the body armor the next morning.
Cell 211 and Carandiru both demonstrate the questions we are afraid to ask of ourselves socially and personally. The Russian Film The Way Back(also a 2010/2011 film on a real event and award winner - highly recommended), about prisoners during Stalin in the Sibera camps who escape, planning to walk thousands of miles to freedom, has an answer to the prison/prisoner problem in the title. The man who leads the escape must reunite with his wife, because only then can she know he forgives her. Sadly, we have moved from a system which allows for the possibility of forgiveness: it scoffs at those who would give it to those imprisoned and eliminates the possibility for those who are or have been imprisoned to return to society. When a person is unable to return to the Polis, or the group, they are always an outsider. In North America a person can serve the time, but you are always going to be a prisoner. Though released, n felon often cannot vote in their state, and is rarely allowed a passport. Even if a US felon got a passport, the UK often will deny entry (much like the US policy since 1987 to deny anyone with HIV entry, which is still listed as a reason for denial of entry after Bush removed the law enforcing it).
These films help us, as we empathize and understand the lives of those we have been told are ‘other’ to us, ask what the line should be for a humane detainment. What is the line that allows for detention of those who break the law without crossing over into acts both capricious and cruel, demeaning both those who endures and enacts them? At what point does a prison system stop thinking, treating or believing that those who guard and those detained are in different positions but still equal as human beings? The most common phrase heard about prisoners, in film or life is ‘they’re animals’, yet they are routinely treated in ways which would be illegal to treat animals.
In the film, Cell 211 is empty because the inhabitant, whose head is in so much pain, is medically examined only through the bars, as is routine, and told they have diarrhea. In fact, they have cancer, a tumor which is the size of a Kiwi is cut out of their head post death. The guard, in staring at the graffiti which chronicles the pain and loss of hope of the previous inmate begins to feel more for those he is in with than those watching from the cameras. This along with many acts, including being at the mercy of people who not only have complete control but abuse that power is what changes the viewpoints of the ‘outsiders’ in these films to become ‘insiders’, at least for a time. And in watching them, so we do as well. We can see and understand what it is like to risk your life and another five or ten years in jail just for the promise that your visit every two weeks not be taken away by a guard who has it out for you. Or that you spend weeks in ‘the hole’ where as one prisoner says, “You long for the guard to come and beat you so you have a voice to scream at.”
A friend who taught seventh grade was charged with a sex crime, and sent to jail as a pedophile for six months before the boy, whose mother found his gay magazines, and so to avoid coming out claimed sexual abuse from his gay teacher. He later recanted and though my teacher friend was freed and given his license to teach back, my friend never returned to teaching, nor advocated being out, or spoke up against slurs on others. He had something stolen from him, by this organism of jail, which never came back. And in a system which is meant to do that, to penalize, how could it be otherwise?
The more control is taken away, the more individuals are demonized, the more we become responsible to change a system which we have inherited. It is no accident that Jesus, 2000 years ago, quotes Isaiah, from 1,500 years earlier to say that he was come ‘to set the prisoner free’. Indeed, most Christians might be surprised to read that Jesus said they would be judged on how they treated the prisoner and the other vulnerable in society. If we become like a guard, who advocates human rights for some and not for others, we also are bound to prisoners in the myths we need to tell ourselves in order to continue seeing ourselves as ‘not like them’. Cell 211, The Way Back and Carandiru are all highest recommendation of the deep, pure desire for freedom and dignity. They are inspiring and tragic together; but also a good wake up slap on the face reminding us that survival requires adapting, as does self worth and dignity.
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