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A Chat with Director Angad Bhalla of ‘Herman’s House’

Posted April 19, 2013

Herman’s House (T/F 2012) opens this weekend at Cinema Village in NYC. It tells the moving story of the friendship and collaboration of artist Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace, who has spent over forty years living in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell in solitary confinement at Angola prison in Louisiana. As part of an art project, Jackie helped Herman imagine and design his dream home, an exercise in creative resistance to the unbelievable inhumanity of his living conditions. I spoke briefly with the film’s director Angad Bhalla by phone yesterday about why he wanted to tell this story. 

Following its theatrical run, Herman’s House we play PBS’s POV this summer on July 8th.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: How did you first become involved in telling Herman and Jackie’s story?

AB: My introduction came through Jackie. She was a friend of mine from school, and we were politically active together, so I first learned about Herman through her art. A gallery in Europe put out a book of Jackie and Herman’s correspondence. When I read that, I realized there was something here even more interesting than an art project, that there was a compelling friendship and an unusual mentor/student relationship.

T/F: Did you know at the outset that you wouldn’t be able to film Herman in Angola?

AB: Yeah, I spoke with other filmmakers who had attempted to film Herman and they were denied. I wrote a letter and I was denied. But I spoke with him on the phone early on and I began to think, maybe not seeing him makes sense . . . that it’s a way to highlight his separation. But it was also a challenge, not to have your main character on screen.

T/F: Could you tell during that first conversation how powerful Herman’s presence was, and how powerful his voice was at conveying that presence?

AB: Yes, definitely. He was always very comfortable on the phone and very relaxed, but his voice was able to convey so many emotions.

At the same time we were worried about what we were going to show, because we wanted to have times where it was just Herman, where the audience was just with Herman and his thoughts.

T/F: And did you plan on using animation to help fill in those scenes?

AB: Yes and no. I knew we would need animation, but I didn’t realize we’d need to rely on it as much as we did. We were wary of the traps of animation, that we could fill in too much. We wanted to bring attention to what was lacking. We wanted the darkness and the black. We also didn’t want the animation to feel too digital, since this is the story about a man who has been in prison since the 70s. Nicholas (Brault) did an amazing job and once we found this texture it really came together. We knew we wanted to treat the archival footage in the film, especially since we didn’t have archival of Herman himself, to create an impressionistic sense, to make it feel like more of a memory. It really blended well with the animation.

T/F: What’s happening on the activism front? Has there been any movement on ending long term solitary confinement?

AB: It’s going to be a long journey. Once something has become an institution, like this has, it is difficult to change. I hope the film helps to humanize the issue, and that people can begin to develop an emotional connection to it, something beyond statistics.

This campaign is really happening state by state, since it is primarily in state prisons that this solitary confinement is happening. The NYCLU just helped organize a screening in Albany, New York that was attended by several politicians interested in working on this issue. In Arizona they screened the film as part of a campaign not to build new solitary cells. There is also a campaign to have the American Institute of Architects change their code of ethics to state that it is not acceptable to build inhumane facilities like these.

So there are a lot of ongoing activism throughout the country focused on this issue. I hope the film can continue to serve as a resource for them.

Herman’s House is playing now at Cinema Village in NYC. This weekend’s screening will feature post-film Q and As with filmmakers and activists working on the issue of long term solitary confinement. The schedule of screenings is as follows:

Friday, April 19, 7:00 PM (SOLD OUT!)
Moderator: Anna Sale, WNYC Reporter
Speaker: Taylor Pendergrass, Senior Staff Attorney, New York Civil Liberties Union
Speaker: Jackie Summell, Artist, Activist Featured in Film
Speaker: Angad Bhalla, Director of Herman’s House

FRI April 19, 9:15 PM
Speaker: Five, Mualimm-AK, NYC Jails Action Coalition
Speaker: Angad Bhalla, Director of Herman’s House

SAT, April 20, 7:00 PM
Moderator: King Downing, Campaign to End the New Jim Crow
Speaker: Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director, Correctional Association
Speaker: Angad Bhalla, Director of Herman’s House

SAT, April 20, 9:15 PM
Speaker: Jean Casella, Editor, SolitaryWatch.com
Speaker: Angad Bhalla, Director of Herman’s House

SUN, April 21, 3:00 PM
Speaker: Angad Bhalla, Director of Herman’s House
Speaker: Representative from Metro NY Religious Campaign Against Torture

 
 
 
 
   
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