Songbirds (Brian Hill, UK). 70 minutes. Monday (May 1), 6:30 pm, Bloor; May 4, 11 am, ROM. Rating: NNNN
More than 200 female inmates have landed at Downsview Prison in Sutton, England. The docu-musical hybrid Songbirds expertly blends straight-to-camera interviews of inmates talking about abuse and retribution with their performances of the same stories in song. This extra dimension gives both the prisoners and their audience more insight into their life circumstances. An inmate who has spent more than half her life in prison performs like a natural hiphop star; another chills with her delivery of the chorus line written by the film's lyricist, Simon Armitage : "My brother's bleeding, my husband's on fire, I make my art with my father's hands."
The inmates are candid, and their personal stories speak tons about injustice, lack of penal reform and the realities of incarceration. Songbirds gambles with its lighthearted approach to a social topic and comes up a winner.
Out Of Bounds (Alexandre Leborgne, Pierre Barougier, France). 82 minutes. Subtitled. May 5, 6:45 pm, Al Green; May 7, 7:15 pm, Innis. Rating: NNN
In Out Of Bounds we're taken to the world's largest prison, located on an island in the Philippines. Housing 2,300 inmates mainly serving time for murder, Iwahig has a medium-security side with bars, and a sprawling minimum-security area called Hope Village, where there are no walls, no fences and no bars - it's wide open.
After six months in medium security, inmates "graduate" to Hope Village, where they can build a home and live with their families while serving time. There are rules and prison staff to enforce them, but inmates are free to work, shop and live fairly normal lives on the inside.
The humane model also prepares them for release, whereas typical prison release, after years of lockdown, is a sudden taste of freedom many can't handle. The film states that the prisoners have pretty well run the penal environment for a century, and I yearned for more understanding of that history and a deeper insight into more of the people involved.
Life Inside Out (Sarah Zammit, Canada). 72 minutes. Tuesday (May 2), 9:15 pm, and May 5, 9:30 pm, ROM. Rating: NNN
Grand Valley Institute for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, has nice-looking cottages. Prisoners wear their own clothes, cook their own food and decorate their rooms (not cells). They even hold their own key to the door. But any sense of freedom stops there. A young caseworker can't conceal the seething hatred she feels for the inmates, and even a lawyer working on their behalf bristles with frustration and condescends to them.
Life Inside Out profiles four women who are fed up with the games. Kim is serving time for drugs and gets jerked around three times before her parole hearing goes through. Pearl is held up by administrative insufficiencies until she serves her full term. Judy bides her time, even when she's thrown in seg for no reason, and says, "It might look like nice condominiums, but it's not."
The most vocal inmate is T. A. , a foul-mouthed, arrogant manipulator who's also the film's biggest problem. Life Inside Out would have been better if she'd been left on the cutting room floor. You need to take everything she says with a grain of salt.