Posted by | Raven Munsell | Posted on | November 12, 2013
Could you tell us a little bit about the piece you’ll be screening for Conversations at the Edge this fall?
Natural Life is a project I began working on in the winter of 2011, a few months after I arrived to Chicago. The piece focuses on the stories of five individuals who were sentenced to life without parole (natural life) for crimes they committed as youth. The degree of responsibility for the crimes they were charged with varies from merely being in a room with an adult who committed a murder, to being accused of partaking in a premeditated act of killing. None of them, however, will ever be evaluated for change, difference, or growth. They will remain in prison till they die.
I tell the stories from multiple angles, from that of the legal experts and law enforcement officials, through family members of the inmates and relatives of victims of similar crimes. My goal is to examine context as activating and revealing change and difference – synchronically, through simultaneous yet incongruent views on similar acts or events, and diachronically, by allowing positions and phrases to mutate and flip meaning, as in a pun, when transitioning between stories.
This is done first and foremost through the literal device of a split screen. The voices, thus, are always interpreted through more than one view: older and younger, black and white, victim and perpetrator, police and convict, inside prison and outside it. The meaning of each of the two sides of the screen, however, mutates and alters. Difference is the only constant.
My hope is to depict change as inevitable, and difference as structural. And in that way, challenge the underlying presumption of permanence and sameness that the sentence of life-without-parole for juveniles claims and imposes.
What inspired you to make this work?
In 2009 I was collaborating with a young inmate who was serving life in a Michigan prison for a crime he committed as a juvenile. Together we conceived and generated a short 3-D animation that told the story of his crime and sentence by weaving actual facts and images with fabricated and constructed ones. When I left Michigan to move to Chicago, I decided to tackle the severity of his and other youth’s natural life sentencing in a more straightforward way, and to develop a documentary project that would allow these kids’ voices to be heard by a broad and diverse audience.
Tell us about your process: how do you start a piece, and how do you know when it’s finished?
I generally work very fluidly, perhaps to a fault. Production is a form of research. I wait for the details within the encounter with a person or place to guide me as to how a story will be shaped. And research continues in post-production as well. The material for this piece, for instance, has been assembled and disassembled dozens of times. I shifted from a script that focused on linguistic transformations to a script that emphasized character; from a two and three part structure to a more dynamic, multiple part one; and from single channel to a two channel display. Eventually, the story yielded, and some clearer concept and understanding of what it is that I see and what I want to impart, began to surface.
What have you read recently that is most interesting to you?
A related book I recently read is Life After Death, an autobiography written by Damien Echols. Echols and two other juveniles (together known as the Memphis Three) were convicted in 1994 of a crime they didn’t commit, and spent close to twenty years in prison before they were released. Echols’ writing is a rare mix of a harsh, Pasolini like, description of the raw texture of life on death row, with a deliberately naïve engagement with spiritual outlets he conjured and invested in while inside. Stylistically it is as beautifully inconsistent, and moves between highly analytical, eloquent and insightful depictions, to a rough and unstructured assembly of notes and comments generated while serving time in prison.
What are you most looking forward to after having finished this big project?
It is still difficult for me to see the end – my hope is to have a version to show at CATE, and then to take some time to respond to the project in slow detail. Producing the film has been a long and relentless effort, which allowed little time for stepping back and feeling the piece as a whole.