Herman’s House

Film (81 mins), 2012
Directed by Angad Singh Bhalla
Premièred at Hot Docs festival, 27 / 04 / 2012

Review by Nahed Mansour and Konstantin Kilibarda

Independent filmmaker Angad Singh Bhalla’s Herman’s House had its Canadian premiere at this year’s Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. The film traces the relationship between artist Jackie Sumell and political prisoner Herman Wallace, who has been held in solitary confinement for the past four decades, longer than anyone else in the United States. [1] According to Bhalla, the film was designed to explore the frustrations of solitary confinement while tracing the friendship between the two main subjects. By not shying away from the potential contradictions in such relationships, viewers are confronted with both the potentials and limits of solidarity work across America’s dividing lines of race, class and gender.

The film’s title refers to an ongoing art project that Sumell initiated as a result of her multiyear, letter-based correspondence with Wallace. As Sumell explains, “The only way I could get him out of prison is to get him to dream.” [2] Sumell asked Wallace to imagine his dream house, and he responded with a detailed description of an expansive, two-storey, 1970s-style home surrounded by green, flower-filled gardens, with a sumptuous bedroom, a swimming pool decorated with the Black Panther logo, a yellow kitchen with fire extinguishers hanging from the ceiling and a bath the size of Wallace’s cell — six by nine feet. His vision is rendered through a computer-aided animation that breathes virtual life into the project. As Wallace notes, “You look at the house, you are looking at me.” Sumell exhibits this collaborative piece alongside a wooden replica of Wallace’s Louisiana State Penitentiary cell. The exhibition, called The House That Herman Built, has now toured to dozens of cities in over seven countries.

It is at the New York City opening of the exhibit, early in the film, that Bhalla begins to introduce some of the key frictions shaping Sumell and Wallace’s relationship. In a telling voice-over, Wallace candidly asserts that art may not be his thing, and that he allows Sumell to pursue her artistic agenda while simultaneously “using Jackie to highlight [his] struggle.” But as Wallace quickly notes, the relationship is not merely utilitarian, since the partial self-interest guiding their interactions does not “take away from the real relationship” they build together. This dynamic is reinforced in the next scene when Sumell and Vicky, Wallace’s sister, are talking to Wallace from Sumell’s New York apartment. At one point in the conversation, the question of who is really building the house is half-jokingly raised, thereby breaching the question of ultimate ownership over the project. This lack of clarity persists as Sumell attempts to concretize Wallace’s vision, which soon develops into a request that she develop, finance and build a community centre based on the model, in New Orleans (close to where Wallace is being held, and where his sister lives). The subsequent bind that Sumell unwittingly finds herself in — how to distinguish between the house she wants to build for Wallace and the house she ends up buying for herself and the sense of community she creates in New Orleans — then becomes a focal point of the film.

In addition to exploring the multifaceted relationship between the two main protagonists, Bhalla punctuates the narrative by including snapshots of other people touched by Wallace. For instance, we meet Michael Musser, who was imprisoned at age fifteen and spent several years in solitary confinement at the Angola prison. Michael shares his troubling experiences as a youth incarcerated in a facility for adults and how Wallace mentored him, improving his reading and writing, and most importantly teaching him about the value of true compassion. Near the end of this short but poignant sequence Michael’s mother rhetorically asks: “If he could do that in there, what can he do out here?” The sentiment is echoed by others we meet, including Malik Rahim, a former inmate who introduced Wallace to the Black Panther Party in prison. Rahim insists to Bhalla that “Herman is the essence of peace and justice. His spirit is a threat.” We are also introduced briefly to Robert King, another one of the Angola 3, who was released in February 2001 and continues to campaign for Wallace’s freedom.

During the question and answer period following the première, Bhalla and Lisa Valencia-Svensson, producer,* drew attention to the challenges of making (and pitching) a film about prisons that never involves entering one, a film about a dream house that is never physically built, and about a relationship between two people who never appear in the same frame. In fact, these frustrations serve as a successful entry point for the documentarians to examine the absences created as a result of incarceration. Bhalla was explicit about his intention to omit any images of Wallace throughout the 81-minute documentary. “I wanted people to feel the frustration of separation,” he explained when asked about this choice. Wallace’s presence in the film is vocalized through recorded phone conversations with the filmmaker. The conversations are occas-ionally interrupted by a pre-recorded message from the penitentiary informing them that their call is being recorded and that their allotted fifteen minutes is running out. Wallace’s voice is accompanied by minimalist animated drawings that Bhalla inserts into the documentary in order to “help viewers imagine and visualize” his experiences and dreams.

While the film hints at the history of prisons, touches on their architecture and highlights the cruel and unusual punishment they represent, the overwhelming focus is on the beauty of individual relationships that persist despite the pain of solitary confinement. Bhalla avoids making a straightforward documentary about the prison-industrial complex, and instead presents alternative imaginaries that resist confinement. The documentary is refreshing in its ability to communicate to a wider audience, though some viewers may be left asking themselves whether such creative interventions are able to transcend the tendency to merely aestheticize the injustices they portray.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all direct quotes taken from Herman’s House. The trailer, additional film clips and images, and further information can be found on the film’s website, hermanshousethefilm.com, and a listing of upcoming screenings can be found on Storyline’s own website, storylineentertainment.com.

[2] Closed cell restriction (CCR) forces prisoners to be locked in a 6-by-9-foot cell for a minimum of 23 hours a day, every day.

* Correction: In the paper edition of this review, we incorrectly identified Iris Ng, director of photography, as Bhalla’s co-presenter.

Konstantin Kilibarda is a writer, activist and PhD candidate at York University.

Nahed Mansour is a Toronto-based visual artist and director of Mayworks Festival.

Image credit: Herman’s House (film still), 2012. Angad Singh Bhalla (director). Image courtesy of Storyline Entertainment.

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