O Prisioneiro da Grade Ferro: A Meditation on a Documentary Film and How We Encountered It in Rio

14 Jul

100_1754The UniRio campus has some great graffiti, but this bit is my favorite so far: POUCA VIDA, MUITA ARTE (SO LITTLE LIFE, SO MUCH ART).  The sentiment sums up my feelings about being here.  The students and I have had so many amazing opportunities to see and participate in theatrical activities since our arrival here that we really do feel quite conflicted about choosing which things to do in the few weeks’ time we have.  Already some of us are more than halfway finished with our trips.  (We all had different travel schedules, so Liz Raynes arrived first and is due to return home soonest.  When she leaves in a few days, we will sorely miss her!)  Each day there are more interesting things going on than we could possibly attend or that I could fully write about on this blog.  Today’s post is about just one of our recent adventures.  More will follow shortly in posts to come.

On Friday nights the Teatro na Prisão program shows movies related to prison issues in Brazil.  Professor Fiche and her students gather to watch a different film each week and to discuss issues surrounding incarceration in their country.  Andy, Renee, Liz, Sarah, and I attended last Friday night’s screening of O Prisionero da Grade Ferro (called  Prisoner of the Iron Bars in English).  This documentary, released in 2004 and directed by Paulo Sacramento, depicts the conditions inside the infamous Carandiru prison in São Paulo.

In 1992 a fight amongst several prisoners in Carandiru escalated into a riot which involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners in the vastly overcrowded prison.  Carandiru was at its height the largest prison in Latin America, and at the time of the riot the prison housed more than double the number of prisoners it was built to hold.  Though prisoners offered their surrender when the prison was surrounded by police in riot gear, the police took the prison by force.  111 prisoners were killed, almost all by bullets (which, of course, only the police possessed).  These men were trapped inside a building they could not escape, gunned down by the dozens by their own countrymen.  In 2013, more than twenty years after the massacre, twenty-three police officers were convicted of killing just thirteen of Carandiru’s slain prisoners.

Drauzio Varella, a doctor who had been volunteering at the prison infirmary for more than a decade to try to curb the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS within Carandiru, wrote a popular book about the prison and the frighteningly bad conditions there.  The book, Estação Carandiru (published in English as Carandiru Lockdown: Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Prison), first published in 1999, was a critical success and was later made into a very popular Brazilian film called Carandiru (2003), directed by Hector Babenco.  My students and I had watched this film, which is not a documentary and is a bit glossier and sexier version of the actual events, in Michigan before we came to Rio.  We found the film to be very moving, and it gave us a bit of the history of Brazil’s prisons before we entered one ourselves.

O Prisionero da Grade Ferro, the documentary that we watched with the Teatro na Prisão folks here in Rio this past Friday, offered an even more disturbing look at Carandiru prison.  Filmed in the seven months prior to the prison’s demolition in 2002, this documentary showed similar conditions to those depicted in the more popular movie, except the truth was more devastating than the fictive version of events.  The team of documentarians taught a course on filmmaking inside the prison during the months that they were gathering footage, and some residents of Carandiru were given handheld cameras to record their own observations of prison life.  The final version of the film combines footage taken by the prisoners with that of the filmmakers.

The  most troubling scenes in the film depicted the “isolation cells.”  Ironically, isolation cells in Carandiru held up to fourteen men in a closet-sized space.  Their bodies were so tightly packed into the cells that the prisoners had to take turns sleeping.  They were not allowed to bathe or to leave these cells for months at a time, and they showed the filmmakers the rotting food that served as their meager sustenance.  The men looked into the cameras and pleaded with international human rights organizations to intervene.

Another portion of the film showed families visiting prisoners on the weekly visiting day. An incarcerated photographer would take snapshots of prisoners and their families in the central courtyard that defined each of Carandiru’s nine buildings.  The same photographer was also forced to take pictures of the bodies of the men murdered by fellow prisoners.  At times this man had taken a picture of a prisoner with his loved ones just hours before being called upon to photograph the same man’s body, riddled with stab wounds.  The documentary showed quite a few of these gruesome photos of corpses. Both before and after the massacre, Carandiru was a terrifying and brutal place to live.  Some of the men in the documentary held up giant knives the size of machetes and reported that most men kept two of them for protection–one for each hand.  Their accounts of the prisoner-on-prisoner violence in Carandiru reminded me of things I’ve read about Anogla Penitentiary in Louisiana.  In the 1970s when Angola was one of the most dangerous prisons in the United States, prisoners often slept with a phone book on top of their chests because of the likelihood that someone might try to stab them during the night.  Thankfully, my father has never had to live in a prison with this kind of reputation for bloodshed, but seeing this film rekindled anxieties that never quite dissipate for most prisoners’ families.  The contrast between the photos this incarcerated man took of the prisoners with their families and the ones he took of their mangled bodies starkly depicted what so many of us fear lurks behind the snapshots we carry home with us from prison visiting rooms.  Prisons are places where the potential for this kind of violence always exists, even though most prisoners don’t see this sort of thing happen every day.  No one is ever truly safe inside a cage.

After we watched the documentary (which thankfully had English subtitles), the Teatro na Prisão students and Professor Fiche had an energetic discussion about what we’d seen in the film.  Unfortunately, Sarah had had to leave a bit early to return to the student hostel where she serves as the emergency contact person for all of the University of Michigan students traveling in Rio right now.  (Brazil Initiative folks, you can be very proud of Sarah’s attentiveness and responsibility to her work for you!  She didn’t even get to see the end of the film.)  Since Sarah is by far the most fluidly bilingual person in our group, we had to make do with my mixture of Portuguese and Spanish and our best efforts as a group to discern the various Brazilian accents of the members of Teatro na Prisão.  (Many members of Teatro na Prisão speak excellent English, but none of those folks were on hand on Friday night.)  Despite our language barriers, we had a very productive conversation about the differences and similarities between prisons in the U.S. and Brazil.

The Brazilians were eager to find out what surprised us about the documentary, and the thing that surprised me most was that the film exists at all.  I cannot imagine U.S. prisons allowing filmmakers or even photographers that kind of access to the human rights abuses that exist inside our prisons.  In most states in the U.S. you cannot even take photographs of the exteriors of prisons without risking punishment.  In 1997 Ken Light put together an incredibly powerful book of photographs called Texas Death Row, showing portraits of all of the men who were awaiting execution in Texas at that time.  He also took pictures of death row itself and the few material belongings of the condemned, including family letters and photos.  The final image in the book shows the cross-shaped table to which prisoners are strapped before receiving lethal injection.  The book was so disturbing that the state of Texas vowed not to let cameras back inside their prisons again.  In fact, maps are also banned in Texas prisons because they might give prisoners a sense of where they are and help them to escape.  The fact that this Brazilian documentary could show images of dead bodies and men piled up like firewood inside overcrowded cells is something that I could never imagine happening in such a film made in my own country.

To be sure, documentaries and reality television shows are allowed to film inside U.S. prisons on a regular basis, but that footage  and the filmmakers are strictly monitored by prison authorities.  In this Brazilian documentary, incarcerated men at Carandiru and the filmmakers recorded footage of moonshine being brewed and crack being prepared for sale within the prison.  The prisoners in Carandiru filmed guards sleeping while on duty, and the prisoners provided candid commentary on what the guards do and do not do at the prison and how they treat those under their supervision.  This, too, could not happen in the U.S.  I cannot imagine a scenario in which prisoners could film guards or comment on their behavior in a negative light.

The UniRio students and Professor Fiche told us about a prison in Rio, which, like Carandiru, was demolished.  This prison was closer to the university and to the city center than the prisons where they now conduct their theatre workshops, and it was also more conveniently located in terms of enabling families to visit their incarcerated loved ones.  Rio has an extensive public transportation network, including many different bus lines and a rather limited subway system (which is currently being renovated in anticipation of next year’s World Cup).  However, riding public transportation here can be quite an ordeal.  One of the Teatro na Prisão students told me that he transfers between several different buses to travel between his home and the university and that the journey takes about two hours in each direction.  Here he was at UniRio on a Friday night watching this film with us until after 10 PM, only to face two hours of bus riding to get home.  The fact that prisons in the center of Rio are closing means that it’s more difficult and more time consuming for Teatro na Prisão to do their work.  We face the same problem at the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP).  The Michigan Department of Corrections has closed several of the prisons in Detroit, where most incarcerated people’s families live, and is shipping even more prisoners to remote parts of the state, especially Michigan’s Upper Peninsula which is rural, distant from the urban centers of the state, and difficult to navigate during our brutal winters.  Prisoners in rural and isolated locations get far fewer visits from loved ones and receive much less programming from volunteer organizations, like ours.  PCAP students, faculty, staff, and volunteers sometimes drive up to two hours each way every week to get to some of the prisons where we hold arts workshops.  The more time we spend in transit, the less time and energy we have to do our best work.  The closing of prisons in Detroit, which is only forty-five minutes from our campus in Ann Arbor, give us fewer options for nearby sites for PCAP’s work.

The more I see of prisons outside of the U.S., the more struck I am by how much all carceral systems have in common.  What is it in human nature, in globalization, or in our systems of national governance that enable so many of the same problems to reoccur in so many different parts of the world?  I am deeply convinced that we have to keep having public conversations of a detailed and informed nature about systems of punishment if we hope to stem the tide of mass incarceration worldwide.  There has to be a better way to deal with crime and violence, and we will only find potential solutions if we share information and continue to seek the humane treatment of all people.



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