2009 CIFF: Girls on the Wall (2009)

Director: Heather Ross

2009 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Those of us who love the movies do so for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest reasons I love them is that they tell us the stories of our lives. Depending on mood, we might want to get a thrill from an action-adventure film or feel the touch of love from a romance. But stories do more than evoke feelings we want to have; they also release feelings we do not always want to have. When a film like Antichrist appears on the scene, it puts us in a dark place—but at least we chose to be there.

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The female inmates of Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, Illinois, have lived involuntarily in a dark place for much of their short lives. These girls have grown up with addicted, sexually and physically abusive, emotionally shut-down parents and caregivers. Many of them are not interested in doing anything with their stories but bury them. In so doing, they bury their pain and rage. All of them have already passed through juvenile hall to graduate to this relatively benign prison. Some of them will end up in adult prison. Some of them will die before their time.

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The administrators of Warrenville Prison will do something, anything to break this cycle. In 1984, they began a musical theatre program. The film opens as Meade Palidofsky, artistic director of the Music Theatre Workshop (now called Storycatchers Theatre), begins working with the Fabulous Females, a small group of inmates involved in the program, in preparation for a performance several months down the road.

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The film focuses primarily on three girls. Whitney, 17, is withdrawn and angry. She won’t talk about her crime, answering sarcastically, “I ran over a cat.” Christina, 18, is incarcerated because she ran away numerous times from the foster homes she’d been placed in after her crackhead mother lost custody of her. Rosa, 17, is doing time for auto theft. She has a temper that lands her back in Warrenville after a brief period of freedom sporting a brand-new scar on her neck from a knife wound that required 36 stitches to close. Over the months, “Ms. P” will encourage these and the other Fabulous Females to tell their stories, which will be molded into a musical, with the aim of helping them set some of their demons free as they await their physical freedom.

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The film records the show’s development process. The girls write out their stories in prose or poetry and recite them to the group. Rosa, a talented rapper, inspires the other girls to take Ms. P’s assignment seriously. Whitney must be coaxed repeatedly to come out of her shell, but eventually she recites a poem in which she reveals that her father gave all his love to his crack pipe and none to her. Christina talks about the reason she repeatedly runs away to find her mother—she has never separated psychologically from her mother and loves her even when “you smoke your pipe right in front of me.” Although Rosa doesn’t write about it for the musical, the close bond she, like the other girls, forms with director Ross and the small camera crew allows her to reveal for the first time the source of her anger—her cousins molested her from about the age of 5.

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The film is very well-constructed and moves with suspense and anticipation during its short 61-minute running time. When Christina leaves to move in with a Christian family who wants to adopt her, we can see the hope turn to despair at a mismatch that was obvious not 10 minutes after she drove off with her new “mother” and the youth mentor who brokered the arrangement. On the upside, it’s an incredibly moving experience to watch the sullen Whitney grow more animated and connected throughout the film.

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The final performance of their “lockdown musical” is very emotional, with few dry eyes in the house (including my house). At the end, when Whitney’s father embraces her in a genuinely heartfelt hug, followed by a huge smile on the young woman’s face, my feelings of joy surprised even me. Perhaps more importantly, this film shows that bad girls are made, not born, and if helped in the right way, they can turn their lives around before that chance fades forever. Palidofsky, whom I knew when we both danced at the Chicago Dance Center, has shown a lifelong commitment to using the arts for healing, education, and social justice. Good on ya, Meade!

This film has already been booked for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and will show up on PBS in 2010. Chicagoans have one more chance to see this outstanding documentary about girls from our own community. Please give this movie your support; it really deserves it. l

  • Daniel spoke:
    15th/10/2009 to 3:54 pm

    Sounds right up my alley and reminds me of Heart of Stone, which is still making the festival rounds. That was about teens in NJ, and though they were boys and their problems were gang-related, it was similar proof of the “made not born” argument. Don’t we liberals just love the idea of rehab? ;-P
    A friend of mine has been doing musical and dramatic therapy with people in many different countries, including the U.S. I’ll make sure to recommend this one to her.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/10/2009 to 5:00 pm

    “Liberal” is not a dirty word, and the goals and practices of liberalism are not empty or unattainable.

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  • Kym McNabney spoke:
    21st/01/2010 to 11:17 pm

    I’ve been to Warrenville a couple of times to see the girls perform. It’s a very emotional time. They do a great job and I give them a lot of credit, putting their stories out there like that.

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