Herman’s House: Q&A with Director Angad Bhalla

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Earlier this week I published a post about an advance screening of the film “Herman’s House” that I attended.  From the previous post:

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.

I have not been able to stop thinking about the film and I was excited to delve more deeply into the making of “Herman’s House” with Director Angad Bhalla.

The Recollective:  I found myself getting a little annoyed when the story veered into Jackie’s past and her relationship with her father.  I got a little upset that I was expected to care about this “struggling artist” when Herman Wallace was having a much worse time of it.  At the same time I appreciated that you were trying to tell a story that was about their relationship and so a look back into both their lives was necessary.  What prompted that direction?

Angad: Well you kind of answered the question yourself as there was no way to tell the story of Herman and Jackie’s friendship without understanding something of who Jackie is and her upbringing.  I am not sure it was my intention to have you care about her issues in the same way you would have concern for Herman but it was important to offer an audience possibilities for understanding Jackie as a full and complex human being.  I think that without those scenes it would be too easy to dismiss Jackie as merely a zany artist which she is not.  I also wanted to try to complicate the all too common narrative of a white privileged outsider coming to help a person of color in trouble.  While you can read the film that way, I think there is much more interesting dynamic going on in their collaboration.  Finally given Jackie and Herman’s friendship is the primary way you get to know Herman as a human being in the film, it felt important to give an audience some sense of Jackie’s possible motivation.

The Recollective:  How long have you been documenting Jackie’s project with Herman angadbhallaand how did you find Jackie?

Angad:  I started documenting the project in June of 2007 and we basically covered the story in real time until early 2009.  Jackie and I became friends at university where both of us were involved in protest movements against the then impending Iraq war.

The Recollective:  Did you have an ending for “Herman’s House” when you started shooting?  If so, what was the ending you had in mind and how does the current state of Herman’s and Jackie’s lives align with or diverge from the original idea?

Angad:  No I didn’t have an ending for “Herman’s House” when I started shooting.  Of course I was hoping there would be some positive development with the case or with the house project that might serve as an ending but that didn’t happen.  From the beginning, I knew the film would focus on Herman and Jackie’s unique friendship and so the ending was not that important, it just needed to reflect the depth and complexity of that friendship. So Herman and Jackie current conditions do not really diverge from my original idea.  Both are dreamers trying to overcome very powerful structures of oppression, in some ways a conventional “happy” ending for the film may have [been] misleading. * (Note: WITNESS staffer Jackie Zammuto forwarded this tragic update to Herman Wallace’s story from a recent edition of Mother Jones.)

The Recollective:  Herman’s circumstances, his decades-long confinement is representative of a larger injustice in our prison system but it seems that, while that may be the backdrop for the film, it’s not really the subject of it.  Was it always your intention to focus on the unique personal and creative collaboration between Herman and Jackie against the backdrop of this enormous social justice issue or did things evolve along the way?

Angad:  It was always my intention to focus on the personal and creative collaboration and keep the larger injustice of our prison system in the background. I’m sure great films will and have been made dealing explicitly with the problems with our prison system but that story didn’t interest me.  I have worked as community organizer in the past and through that experience, I’ve learned that people respond best to an issue based on an emotional connection.  So my goal was to have the audience emotionally connect to Herman and Jackie.  My feeling was the best way to illustrate the inhumanity of the prison system was to reveal the humanity of Herman.

The Recollective:  The film airs on POV July 8.  Have you begun researching or working on any other projects?

Angad:  I am currently working on a related interactive project with the National Film Board of Canada that provides further insight into Herman’s story and the injustice of solitary.  I also continue to produce web content for labor unions and other progressive organizations with my media collective timeofdaymedia.com.

Herman’s House

Herman Wallace  2/23/07WITNESS 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.

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“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.

jackiesumellThus 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.

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“Herman’s House” premiers on PBS July 8.