WITNESS is a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that partners with organizations across the globe to document human rights violations and encourage policy change. It just so happens that their office is in the same building as mine so after work last Wednesday I dropped by to attend their advance screening of “Herman’s House.”
The film, written and directed by Angad Bhalla, documents the unlikely friendship of Jackie Sumell, a politically engaged New York artist, and Herman Wallace, a convicted murderer in his early 70s who has spent over thirty years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. Wallace, along with Albert Woodfox and Robert King, is part of the infamous Angola Three.
In April 2010 I had the opportunity to record the stories of select inmates and staff members at the Louisiana State Penitentiary as a field producer for StoryCorps. The stories I heard during those two days of recording were powerful and revealing but two days was hardly enough time to explore all of the complexities of a prison larger than Manhattan with 5,000 inmates and a staff of 1,800. So I was excited to learn more about Wallace who, of course, was not among the inmates I was able to record three years ago.rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
“Herman’s House” will likely find an enthusiastic audience among advocates for prison reform and organizations like WITNESS that use media to fight for human rights, but the film doesn’t go into much detail about Wallace’s case or the human rights implications of prolonged solitary confinement. It focuses instead on the unique relationship between Wallace and Sumell who theorizes that by dreaming of freedom Wallace might one day achieve it.
Thus far that “dreaming” has manifested itself in the form of a wooden reproduction of Wallace’s 6-by-9-foot cell and a scale model of Wallace’s dream house, both designed and constructed by Sumell based on Wallace’s instructions. Since its 2007 debut at Artists Space “The House That Herman Built,” has exhibited in a dozen galleries around the world.
And that, along with the existence of the film itself, conjured up some mixed emotions for me while I watch. Early on in the film Wallace, whose face is shown only once in a faded family photo, says “…art is not my thing.” That statement both grounds the film and raises the question of whether or not the time and energy invested in the art installation and the film could have been better spent.
Then again, the fact that days after seeing the film, I am not only thinking about Herman Wallace but writing about him, too, must mean something.rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
“Herman’s House” premiers on PBS July 8.