Underhistoricized and undertheorized in documentary studies is the semi-documentary, a postwar cycle of location-bound Hollywood films. This paper investigates the production, distribution, exhibition, and promotion of Canon City (1948), a prison semi-documentary that reenacted a prison escape in Cañon City Colorado the previous year. Filmed on location at the Colorado State Penitentiary, using real convicts as extras, and starring Warden Roy Best as himself, the film made a strong realist appeal towards audiences in its promotion and trade press materials: “This is not fiction… This is the Naked Fury of Fact!” “Filmed the way it happened!”
The paper argues that prison films, by virtue of depicting a space that was inaccessible to the general public, were uniquely suitable to the semi-documentary’s forms and promotions. While the film’s newsreel opening, basis in recent events, and exploitation of profilmic space advanced claims of authenticity, Canon City’s historical value as a semi-documentary and as an example of prison film also lies in its selling. The publicity campaign involved street performers dressed as escaped convicts, movie theaters redecorated as prisons, ushers in official Colorado State Penitentiary guard uniforms, a solitary confinement cell with a “convict” in Times Square, and the actual weapons used in the escape (and the film) displayed in theater lobbies across the country. Additionally, the film was screened for both convicts and wardens, implying the semi-documentary’s function as a peculiar instance of “useful cinema.”
As a B studio with A ambitions, Eagle-Lion invested heavily in a campaign that extended a paratextual carceral experience beyond the boundaries of the film and the theaters that screened it. Drawing on new film historical approaches, this investigation demonstrates how postwar studio “documentary” infrastructures courted publics and facilitated their engagement with the supposedly real prison through filmic, profilmic, and extrafilmic strategies.
Eli Boonin-Vail is a PhD student in Film and Media Studies at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in film history. His research focuses on the classical Hollywood studio system, 1920 – 1960, with a particular emphasis on studio infrastructure and its relationship and collaboration with penal institutions. He has also written on race and comic books, as well as French film production culture. His work can be found or is forthcoming in Animation Studies, Inks, Film Criticism, French Screen Studies, and the edited collection Desegregating Comics: Debating Blackness in Early Comics, 1900-1960.
In the 15th century, Venetians invented “Quarantine” as a protection against the plague. In the Mid-20th century, Americans invented a criminal punishment system based on the model of quarantine in which the disproportionately poor, black, or brown ‘offender’ is treated as a pathogen to be isolated and contained. In the 21st century, COVID-19, an actual pathogen, has both exposed and intensified the brutality of that system — prisoners have been stranded in quarantine without adequate food or medication, abandoned and unseen. In the US over 2 million people are confined in overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe environments. Prisoners cannot practice social distancing or use hand sanitizer and are regularly subjected to medical malpractice and neglect. In the context of the conference thread addressing “Documentary and the Politics of Information,” this hybrid paper/artist presentation will focus on the interactive documentary Exposed, which provides a cumulative public record and evolving history of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on incarcerated people. Exposed documents the spread of COVID-19, over time, inside prisons, jails, and detention centers across the US, from the perspective of prisoners and their families. Original interviews, along with quotes, audio clips, and statistics collected from a comprehensive array of online publications and broadcasts, are assembled into an interactive timeline that, on each day, offers abundant testimony to the risk and trauma prisoners experience under coronavirus quarantine. The scale of the project is intended to reflect the scale of the crisis. For July 8th alone, the timeline includes over 100 statements made by prisoners afflicted with the virus or enduring anxiety, distress, and neglect. The monochrome, image-less, headline-styled interface, which allows viewers to step through thousands of prisoners’ statements, is designed to visualize their collective suffering and signal that the injustices they endure are structural.
Sharon Daniel is a media artist who creates interactive and participatory documentary artworks addressing issues of social, racial, and environmental injustice, focusing principally on mass incarceration and the criminal legal system. She develops innovative online interfaces and multi-media installations that visualize and materialize the testimony of incarcerated people. Her work has been exhibited in museums and festivals internationally. Documentation of exhibitions and links to projects and publications can be found at http://sharondaniel.net. Daniel is a Professor of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Above three individuals lying on the ground infected with COVID-19, a prisoner stands describing the dire conditions inside Roumieh Central Prison, the largest and most notorious prison in Lebanon. Several fellow inmates surround him in a semi-circle and stare straight into the camera of a contraband smuggled cellphone filming them. Another inmate walks through the corridors of the prison, records fellow prisoners infected with the virus, and acquires about their symptoms. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisoners have been utilizing their smuggled contraband cellphones to document their experiences and the failure of the authorities in managing the spread of the virus in prisons.
In my paper, I conceptualize this growing prison phenomenon as media practice and examine its political and testimonial potentialities. I survey a sample of disseminated online footage produced by prisoners from the infamous Roumieh Central Prison in Lebanon. Situating the analysis within the theoretical framework of digital media mobilization and media witnessing, I investigate the production of prison cellphone footage and their mediation online through social media sites. Furthermore, I categorize three major types of prisoners’ produced footage during the pandemic; reactive, evidential, and confrontational footage. I argue that, by utilizing the frame and the POV of their smuggled cellphone cameras, prisoners can confront or position the audience to their side, while rendering the latter witnesses to the atrocities of the quotidian life inside Roumieh Central Prison. Prison cellphone production becomes a hybrid media practice of mobilization which aims to create an archive of sensual material testifying to the reality of incarceration during a pandemic. That very practice also acts as evidence to the constant attempts and ambitions of prisoners to mobilize, dissent, and self-represent through the use of illicit media technology, hence potentially constituting an alternative political vision to prisoners’ experiences from behind bars.
Chafic Najem is a doctoral candidate in Media and Communication Studies at the Institute of Media Studies, Stockholm University. His research deals with themes of visual criminology, practices of amateur media mobilization, documentation and resistance in incarceration, and media witnessing, more precisely his current dissertation examines practices of media production by prisoners in Lebanese correction facilities.
Melina C. Kalfelis has lately been working in the Social and Cultural Anthropology Department at the University of Bayreuth. In December 2021, she joined the research initiative “ConTrust: Trust in Conflict – Political Life under Conditions of Uncertainty” at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Her recent project deals with trust, violence, and justice in the context of current conflicts in the Sahel region. More generally, her research interests include politics, labour, transnationalism, civil society, law, ethics, and philosophical anthropology and ethnographic methodology. Melina also works as a photographer and filmmaker. In 2019 she released her second documentary film, “NGO Crossroads”, at the FESPACO Festival in Ouagadougou. It engages with the vulnerability of grassroots NGOs in Burkina Faso through their cooperation with international donors.