By Xavier Warne
Each of the roughly 37,000 full-time adult prisoners in Australia is an individual human being, each with their own unique background, hopes, and stories. This fact may seem obvious, but it is one that is all too often ignored. The role of incarceration in Australian society is difficult to grasp fully, given that these stories are, in most cases, never heard in any great detail, if not merely ignored.
Prison Songs, a documentary musical by Kelrick Martin, seeks to rectify this dilemma through an hour of intimate interviews and musical performances with the inmates at Berrimah Prison in the Northern Territory, Australia. The film charts a poignant course through a series of personal stories told by the inmates of Berrimah prison. These raw and touching narrations are interspersed with musical numbers written in collaboration between the film crew and the inmates themselves. What results is a rare, prolonged look into the largely unheard stories behind the people too often presented as mere statistics.
‘How the f*cking hell did I end up here,’ is the penultimate cry of the film’s opening musical number as we are introduced to Max, the privileged young son of a lawyer. In the film’s first interview, he tells of how a rocky relationship with drugs and aggressive tendencies landed him in jail when he attempted a robbery to pay off his drug debts. As he recalls the normalcy of his life before drugs and prison, and how his actions hurt those closest to him, he admits, ‘Anyone can end up in a place like this.’
In a prison where 80 per cent of inmates identify as Indigenous, mixed-race Max and Dale offer an insight into the struggle of being caught in the tug of war between their black and white identities. In a hip hop song penned by themselves, the boys explain how their alienation or separation from their Indigenous heritage together with their feelings of disconnect with mainstream white society have left them feeling displaced.
Fifty-one year old Wurdankardi laments being punished by a system that has been imposed on his people and, in his eyes, does not represent them. There is a heavy weight to the brief text inserts that inform us that 76 per cent of the inmates committed their crimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or that 90 per cent have experienced or committed domestic violence. However, it is the stories that accompany these statistics that give the film its raw emotional impact.
In a brilliant act of dry wit, we are introduced to Malcolm, a young man of 20 who was arrested whilst intoxicated, yet proceeds to dedicate a love song to the number one lady in his life: alcohol. The sight of a young man, as well as a cast of fellow prisoners cum back-up dancers, singing a love song to a substance that likely played a significant role in their being in prison, is at once heartbreaking and hilarious, in short, utterly human.
A song dedicated to the inmates’ parents and the intergenerational reproduction of domestic violence strikes perhaps the film’s greatest emotional chord with the tragic line, ‘this is what you learn, from your mum and dad.’ This song, taken alongside the stories of the prisoners, perhaps most clearly illustrates the often cyclical relationship between substance abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, and incarceration that many find themselves in all too often.
The film ends on a bittersweet note, as the characters we have come to know over the course of the film speak of the future. The characters speak with sombre and articulate reflection, whether it be Wurdankardi’s promise to return to his tribe, and let them know ‘there’s no life in prison’, or Dale’s resolution to make the most of his release, to go straight and raise a family. It is, he admits, most likely his ‘last chance’.
Over the course of the film, statistics become human beings, and that is the film’s greatest achievement. Kelrick Martin has stressed the film is in no way an attempt to sugar coat the prisoners to whom we are introduced. The prisoners are, at the end of the day, still convicted felons. However, by the end of the film they have become more than that. We are led to see them as the wives, sons, mothers and brothers that they truly are. We are led to see them as human beings. And ultimately this raises the question of the fundamental purpose of incarceration. Are these people in prison to be punished, or rehabilitated? If both, how can we balance the two?
The film doesn’t assume to be able to answer these questions. But in raising them, it takes a step in the right direction.