The history of the prison industrial complex is rooted in slavery and colonization, with an inherent purpose of reinforcing oppressive social and economic injustices. It’s driven by market forces that use surveillance, policing, violence and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems. It is exacted by police officers, guards, ICE officers, and others that enforce state violence. Brutality and racism has always been the norm. The system is working how it was designed, and reform measures will always fall short.
To illuminate these realities and get to a world free of police and prisons – we need stories. Stories that share the history and harm of these institutions, stories that show people pushing back and taking action, and stories that bring forth irresistible visions of a future with humane and just alternatives to policing and incarceration. This was the intention of the Docs in Action request for proposals, which sought to fund short nonfiction films that can help define and amplify what prison industrial complex abolition means, and that inspire people to imagine and take action toward a world without police and prisons.
We are excited and honored to announce the recipients of the 2021 Docs in Action Film Fund. $125,000 was awarded to five filmmakers to complete short films that embody these narratives. They include: Adamu Chan for What These Walls Won’t Hold, Erika Cohn for Belly of the Beast (short version), Walidah Imarisha for Space to Breathe, Sylvia Ryerson for Restorative Radio, and Khary Septh for Pen Pals.
The complexities of abolition are deeply layered. It is both historical and imaginative. This is why narrative is such a crucial component of the abolitionist movement. “Abolition contains multitudes,” Red Schulte, Organizer with Survived & Punished New York, reflects on the ongoing work and struggle. “A central aspect to me, an aspect that keeps me recommitted to these politics and relationship experiments, is the creativity and imagination that abolition demands. Making visual narratives, like films, making our own media is so crucial to shifting social and cultural norms, beliefs and commitments. Resourcing people to make their art, to document our movements, to imagine different worlds — that has to be part of our political agenda.”
Working Films launched the Docs In Action Film Fund in 2018 to support the production of short documentaries that address critical issues of social and environmental justice. This year, we evolved how Docs In Action funding decisions are made. Because we believe that grassroots leaders and directly impacted people should hold the power to determine what stories are told and what films are funded to serve their movements, we ceded our role on the grant panel. The funded films were selected by our partners, which include Center for Political Education, Critical Resistance, MPD150, and Survived & Punished.
The intentionality to build power from the ground up is echoed in the words of Aminah Elster, Campaign & Policy Coordinator with the CA Coalition for Women Prisoners and organizer with Survived & Punished CA, “The overall process of the DIA panel allowed for proximate leaders working towards abolition at various intersections, to truly have a hand in selecting the narratives that most accurately reflect and amplify what our communities have long been experiencing.”
The 2021 Docs In Action Film Fund recipients include:
What These Walls Won’t Hold by Adamu Chan
The COVID-19 crisis inside California prisons has claimed the lives of over 200 incarcerated people and infected tens of thousands more. This film tracks the origins of COVID-19 inside the California state prison system and a newly formed coalition, led by currently and formerly incarcerated people, that brought forward an abolitionist framework to a life or death situation. What These Walls Won’t Hold explores how relationships, built on trust, shared liberatory struggle, and connections across broader abolitionist organizing work, can unfold into sites of resistance and radical change.
Adamu Chan is a filmmaker, writer, and community organizer from the Bay Area who was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison during one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. He produced numerous short films while incarcerated, using his vantage point and experience as an incarcerated person as a lens to focus the viewer’s gaze on issues related to social justice. Adamu draws inspiration and energy from the voices of those directly impacted, and seeks to empower them to reshape the narratives that have been created about them through film.
What These Walls Won’t Hold is produced by Christian Collins and Adamu Chan.
Space to Breathe by Walidah Imarisha, Jordan Flaherty, and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, in collaboration with Calvin Williams of Wakanda Dream Lab
Space to Breathe is an abolitionist science fiction hybrid documentary. The film is set in a future where there are no prisons or police, looking back at how today’s movements built that future.
Walidah Imarisha is an educator at Portland State University’s Black Studies Department and a writer. Her work includes Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements and Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison and Redemption. Jordan Flaherty is an award-winning journalist, producer, and author. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org. Kate Trumbull-LaValle is an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker. She directed Ovarian Psycos (2016), Artist and Mother (2018), City Rising: The Informal Economy (2018), and she co-produced two of five episodes for the groundbreaking PBS series, Asian Americans (2020). Over the past 20 years, Calvin Williams has been worldbuilding for liberation as a dynamic cultural strategist & policy futurist, and is Co-founder and Creative Director for Wakanda Dream Lab.
Restorative Radio by Sylvia Ryerson
Every Monday night, Michelle Griffin dials into WMMT-FM community radio’s Calls from Home, to send a message over the airwaves to her husband, imprisoned 400 miles away. For thousands incarcerated in Central Appalachia, the show provides a lifeline to the world outside. Restorative Radio tells the stories of family and friends who call in, and those who listen in from prison. Directed by a former DJ of the show, the film portrays the many forms of distance that rural prison building creates — and the ceaseless search to overcome this regime of family separation and racial apartheid.
Sylvia Ryerson is a multimedia artist, journalist and PhD candidate in American Studies at Yale University. Prior to graduate school she worked at the Appalshop media arts and education center in Whitesburg, KY, where she served as a reporter, producer and WMMT-FM Director of Public Affairs. She co-directed and hosted Appalshop’s Calls from Home radio show, broadcasting music and toll-free phone messages from family members to their loved ones incarcerated, and Making Connections News, a multimedia storytelling project documenting efforts for a Just Appalachian Transition. She currently co-produces Melting the ICE / Derritiendo el Hielo, a bilingual radio show broadcasting testimonios and information to people detained by ICE in New Jersey. Her academic and artistic work has appeared on Kentucky Educational Television (KET), the BBC, NPR’s The Takeaway and Here and Now, the Third Coast International Audio Festival, in American Quarterly, the Boston Review, The Marshall Project, and Critical Resistance’s The Abolitionist.
Restorative Radio is produced by Sylvia Ryerson, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Mimi Pickering, and Reuben Atlas. Impact production by Michelle Griffin. Cinematography by Randall Taylor Jr. and Ayesha Gilani Taylor.
Pen Pals by Khary Septh
Pen Pals shares the stories of the Black LGBTQ+ community caught in the web of America’s prison industrial complex. Exploring the story of Dominique Morgan who was formerly incarcerated and now is the Executive Director of Black and Pink where she works tirelessly to advance prison abolition and supports LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS who are affected by that system, we gain not only an analysis of the structural role of the PIC in maintaining white supremacy and capitalism, but also, a call-to-action for our community to engage in cooperative activities to end it. Dominique’s story as a Black transgender woman also adds the complexity of gender identity to the story, and how it relates to the extreme suffering of trans people trapped in the PIC, and also in society beyond the walls. Stories soften the heart so that the mind may rationally consider things like our moral obligation to support our incarcerated population, or the safety of trans identities in the prison industrial complex, and ultimately, our duty to topple the prison industrial complex. Pen Pals is a collection of these stories, all shared in service of ending the suffering of our people.
Khary Septh is a filmmaker and Executive Editor of The Tenth Magazine, a bi-annual publication that engages the world’s most dynamic LGBTQ+ artists and intellectuals of color in presenting content steeped the American tradition of politically engaged journalism that pays attention to long form, ambitious writing and critical queer thought. A graduate of Cornell University, before starting The Tenth, Khary spent many years as the head of Pink Rooster Studio—a Brooklyn-Based creative studio, and these days, spends his time living and working between New York’s Hudson River Valley and New Orleans, focusing on projects such as the Hudson Emergency Artist Response Team (HEART); non-conditional grants of $500 awarded monthly to BIPOC Hudson-based artists to weather the COVID-19 crisis, and The Tenth Academy, which strives to democratize access to quality mentorship and education, specifically for today’s Black and brown queer youth and adult communities through partnerships with institutions such as Spelman College and the Amistad Research Archives.
Pen Pals is produced by James Powell and Andre Jones. Cinematography by Drew McCrary.
Belly of the Beast (short version) by Erika Cohn
When an unlikely duo discovers a pattern of illegal sterilizations in women’s prisons, they wage a near impossible battle against the Department of Corrections. Filmed over seven years with extraordinary access and intimate accounts from currently and formerly incarcerated people, Belly of the Beast exposes modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice in California prisons.
Erika Cohn is a Peabody, Emmy and DGA Award-winning filmmaker who Variety recognized as one of 2017’s top documentary filmmakers to watch and was featured in DOC NYC’s 2019 “40 Under 40.” Erika directed/produced Belly of the Beast, a NY Times Critic’s Pick, currently playing in virtual cinemas. Erika also directed/produced The Judge (TIFF 2017) and co-directed/produced In Football We Trust (Sundance 2015).
Belly of the Beast is produced by Angela Tucker, Christen Marquez, and Nicole Docta.
The Docs in Action Film Fund is made possible with support from the
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation