10th 04 - 2011 | 2 comments »

Concrete, Steel, & Paint (2009)

Producers/Codirectors: Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza

The Talking Pictures Festival, April 14-17, 2011

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ever since I visited South Africa in 2000, I have been interested in the processes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Such processes occur on both the grand scale of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought psychological reparations for the atrocities committed under apartheid, and on the smaller scale chronicled by documentary directors Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza in Concrete, Steel, & Paint. Their film takes a look at the complications that occurred when two artists tried to bring together inmates of Pennsylvania’s Graterford maximum-security prison and residents of Philadelphia’s Fairhill neighborhood, a poor, violent area from which many of the inmates hail, to create a mural.

The idea for the mural came from the inmates themselves, all of whom were part of an art class inside the prison who heard about mural-making from Jane Golden, director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts program, and urged her to work with them in the class. Spurred by their sense of fulfillment in creating murals for some of the prison’s common areas, the inmates wanted to do something to give back to the community they had each wronged with their crimes, including murder. Golden got together with Victoria Greene, founder of the victim advocates group Every Murder Is Real (EMIR) that is named for her murdered son, who helped facilitate a meeting between the members of the art class and crime victims. Eventually, the mural project got off the ground, but evolved into two separate murals, one representing the inmates’ point of view and the other representing the victims.

What is fascinating is the differing perceptions and attitudes of the inmates, victims (largely family members of murder victims), and Golden herself. Golden says, “Graterford is the sixth
largest maximum security prison in the country. It has a reputation of being a tough place. There were serious criminals there—people I had read about—people I had judged. I was very suspicious of them.” The 30 inmates who attended the first meeting looked upon the mural project initially as something to do, highlighting the monotony of prison life and uselessness inmates feel.

At an initial meeting where the idea is brought to victims, one woman says, “I’m speaking as a victim, a survivor. I’m not interested in what he has to say…necessarily. I’m interested in my healing.” Another says, “I have to hear from the offender. I have to hear the remorse. I have to hear their pain because I need to know do they understand my pain.” Altovise Love-Craighead, Emir’s sister, tells her story and says, “There’s nothing to come out of. There is no closure,” explaining simply that the pain of losing a loved one to murder never goes away.

Despite misgivings and nervousness, both groups meet at the prison. A bridge starts to form, as Love-Craighead says the encounter kind of opened her eyes. The project commences, as Golden and muralist/instructor César Viveros work with the prisoners to come up with a mural concept for the wall they have chosen. He and Golden feel the concept is beautiful, but the victim group attacks it as showing only the prisoners’ pain. This rift forces a reframing of the project: Golden locates two new walls, on buildings that stand next to each other, and Viveros works with the survivors’ group on a mural design of their own.

Again and again throughout the film, the prison artists repeated, “We’re still people.” The horror of a life sentence and of being judged to be inhuman and unfit to do anything but sit, grow old, and die is vivid and very disturbed. Yet, there is a self-pity and feeling of victimization coming from some of the inmates that is galling. Zafir says he was not guilty but some people “didn’t see it that way, and I have to live with that.” Although there is abundant evidence that wrongful convictions take place, most of the inmates admit to their guilt. Tom, who is serving a life sentence for a robbery homicide, says he sees his victim’s face every day and knows he can never get over it.

By working together to paint the panels that will form the murals, the victims and prisoners get to hear each other’s points of view and do something constructive together. Tom talks with one of the victims about how he thinks murderers have a right not to accept the verdict of the outside world that people like him deserve to be “ripped apart by dogs.” She counters that “I’m sure the person who that person murdered probably didn’t want to die. And they had no choice.” This seems to make an impression on Tom. Another inmate talks about how he was a crime victim before he became a criminal, and a victim advocate says that no one is trying to diminish the horror of his experience but that “it’s unfair for you guys to speak for the crime victims who aren’t incarcerated.” Tom’s sister also comes into the prison to paint with the group, giving the survivors a humanizing representative for the prisoners.

In only 56 minutes, Concrete, Steel, & Paint offers a comprehensive view of crime and its victims, punishment, and the importance of dialogue for bringing disparate, resentful groups of people together to affirm their common humanity. Criminals seem to take some responsibility for their actions, though many of them seem to cling to their status as victims before their crimes to assuage their guilt. Likewise, survivors start to let go of revenge as an effective means to heal their pain. Some are frankly pragmatic that many of the people who go into prisons come back into their neighborhoods eventually, and the community needs to care about them. Indeed, one of the inmates, Linwood Ray, is released during the project and gets a job with Viveros working on the mural walls.

Once the murals are up, the community responds, seeing not only their decorative value but the value of the stories they tell—one man, a former inmate, identifies with struggles portrayed in the prisoner-designed walls, another who looks at a crestfallen boy on the survivors’ mural and says “that was me” when he heard his cousin had been shot to death. The power of creativity and the ability of art to offer a channel of communication for people who desperately need it comes through. Concrete, Steel, & Paint is an affecting portrait that makes documentary into a healing art as well.

Concrete, Steel, & Paint screens Friday, April 15, 6 p.m., at the MTC Forum, Medill School of Journalism, 1870 Campus Drive, Evanston.

15th 10 - 2009 | 7 comments »

2009 CIFF: Girls on the Wall (2009)

Director: Heather Ross

2009 Chicago International Film Festival


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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