Should we entertain the incarcerated?

The value of arts in prison

Two weeks ago, in the framework of the (Geneva-based) International Film Festival on Human Rights, I was invited to view and discuss the documentary On Her Shoulders at the prisons of Champ Dollon and La Brenaz in Geneva. Surrounded by a jury of prisoners, guardians, penitentiary staff, and accompanied by the project’s energetic leader, we saw the story of Nadia Murad, a Kurdish Iraqi young woman abducted and made a sexual slave by the Islamic state in 2014. Nadia’s story of abuse is dramatic; her courage unique, and her search for action painful. Alexandra Bombach’s film is sensitive, intelligent, and appalling.

What made the experience exceptional for me was the fact of viewing it in prison. For the duration of the film and the ensuing discussion, I had the feeling of been transported far beyond the walls and barbed fences of reclusion. All of a sudden, we were in a different place. I would call it a place of compassion, where we shared the outrage for the injustice and violence perpetrated against this victim, indistinctively of our personal backgrounds and moral records. Cinema, perhaps like no other storytelling technique, allows an immediate change in perspective. On her shoulders provided us this change of viewpoint, an opportunity to witness the effect of violence, and hate, the result of human cruelty and society’s apathy, and it allowed us to empathize with the victim.

During the discussion, I raised the question, What is the purpose of bringing a film festival to prison? To which an inmate responded, “The film helped me understand the pain inflicted. The woman was a victim of the crimes some of us in here are accused of.”

The question about the purpose of bringing a film festival to prison begs the broader question about the purpose of incarceration. If incarceration is meant to inflict punishment on a perpetrator, and only that, some may argue there’s no need to entertain prisoners. If the role of incarcerating an individual is, as I believe it is in our society, to rehabilitate, reform, and ultimately release and integrate into society, then there is definitively a place for cinema as a tool for self-discovery and personal growth. Evidence exists that incarceration that focuses primarily on punishment does not make societies safer. Punishment alone fails as a deterrent to commit a crime and does not reduce recidivism. Incarceration programs that contribute to rehabilitation through education, skills development, are more likely to have a lasting effect on society. A good film can help us reclaim our capacity to distinguish between good and evil and act upon this distinction.

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