Thursday, October 25, 2007

London Film Fest Day 9 - IN PRISON MY WHOLE LIFE

IN PRISON MY WHOLE LIFE is a documentary about a Black Panther called Mumia Abu Jamal who was convicted of killing a cop and sentenced to death in 1981 after a trial that was condemned by Amnesty International as being unfair. The film is directed by Welsh helmer Marc Evans, known if at all, for the film SNOW CAKE. But really it is a personal story by a young Anglo-American journalist called William Francome, whose activist mother always impressed upon him the fact that he was born the day that Mumia was convicted. Hence, Mumia has been in prison for William's whole life.

The documentary is evidently highly personal and they do well to interview many famous activists. Through no fault of its own, the documentary does, however, suffer from lack of footage of Mumia or any of the people on the other side of the argument - namely the cops and lawyers who hold that Mumia was correctly found guilty. More gravely, the documentary suffers from an incoherent structure. It's starts of as a personal travelogue, mentioning Mumia's crime in passing. We then see a potted history of agitation. We then go through the nuts and bolts of whether the trial was fair. Then we flip back into modern day activism...and so on.

It seems to me like Evans/Francome et al didn't ever decide whether they were making a doc about one man or a history of activism and suppression. Given the scarce footage of Mumia or his detractors, I wish they'd done the latter. Moreover, I wish that they'd tried to give a bit more context about what the Black Panthers were all about. I'm as pro free speech, civil rights and democratic protest at the next guy, but I found the documentary to be a bit superficial in its position that all activists were noble and valiant and all rozzers were scumbags.

Finally, I bring out the two rules against which I judge any new agit-doc: first, does it need to be a feature film; second, is it worth the candle? On the first point, I think that this documentary would have been more powerful if it had been edited more tightly for, say, a sixty minute TV doc slot on BBC2 or Channel 4. It would also have arguably reached a wider audience. There are certainly no visuals that require an audience to see this on a big screen.

On the second point, I do fear that this really is just another agit-doc that will preach to the converted. I can't imagine many anti-liberals shelling out ten squid to see this at the cinema even if it is picked up for release. And as for promoting activism, I don't think it's good enough to rouse the sleeping masses in the way that Al Gore's AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH did. Sad to say, it seems to speak to a battle fought long ago. It may mention Katrina, but it captures none of the rage seen in Spike Lee's recent documentary, WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, or Chris Atkin's documentary TAKING LIBERTIES. These documentaries made me furious. I mean, absolutely spitting furious and ready to actually agitate as a woman of colour and as a civilised human being. By contrast, IN PRISON MY WHOLE LIFE didn't tell me anything I didn't already know and didn't make me any more angry about them.

IN PRISON MY WHOLE LIFE played Cannes, London and Rome 2007.


  1. bina007,

    I have to say that I completely disagree with your opinion of the film.

    If you take a moment to think you would recall that the documentary makers were unable to film Mumia due to the grossley unfair "Mumia law" enacted in 1996 to prevent him from communicating with the public. Therefore the lack of footage in the film is no fault of theirs, and is significant in itself in showing the huge prejudice that exists within the US penal system.

    In regards to the apparent one man/history of activism conflict, I think the documentary balances these two threads extremely well, effectivley placing Mumia's case in the context of racial tension and state oppression.

    I also disgree with your views on the film's effectiveness in moblising public opinion. The ulitmate social issue which the film is attempting to highlight is the inate injustice of the dealth penalty. The fact that a man can be condemned to death despite a shocking lack of evidence and an obviously biased judge will, I think, do wonders to raise public opinion and drive the campaign against the dealth penalty forward.

    If you would just open your mind, and look beyond traditional liberal/conservative divides, i think you would realise this.

  2. If you recall, I did point out that "through no fault of their own" the film-makers can't show footage of Mumia. But it does, in my opinion, leave a hole in the film.

    And, I do wholeheartedly hope that this film does effect the changes that you hope for! I am against the death penalty and for freedom of speech and freedom to demonstrate, as well as being for a fair and independent judiciary. But I have to say that I was not affected by this film or riled up in the way that I was when I watched TAKING LIBERTIES which covers similar ground (bar the death penalty) in a UK context.

    Time will tell, and in the mean-time we have to agree to differ.