“How do we come to believe this is the way things have to be:” Filmmaker Brett Story on the politics of access and observation

In November 2019, The Block welcomed Toronto-based filmmaker Brett Story for two nights of her acclaimed documentary films and conversation on her groundbreaking practice.

The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016) explores the criminal justice system and mass incarceration in the U.S. from a number of oblique vantage points, rather than focusing on prisons themselves. Story looks at female prisoners used as labor to fight California wildfires, a Bronx, New York warehouse for prisoner care packages, a rural coal town anticipating jobs at a new prison, and Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed. Throughout, Story connects the ways that the prison-industrial complex reverberates through communities around the country, offering micro-portraits that illuminate the reach of the prison system beyond penitentiary walls.  Brett Story’s newest film is billed as “a film about climate change, disguised as a portrait of collective anxiety.” 

The Hottest August (2019) offers snapshot of the state of the country in August 2017 as viewed by residents of New York City. What are people worried about (rising rents, a still-new president, wildfires on the west coast, hurricanes on the east coast) and what do they see for the future? As the city swelters, Story weaves the people and places of NYC and its boroughs into a larger picture of a society buffeted from one crisis to the next, capped by the persistent threats brought on by climate change.

The event was co-presented by Block Cinema with Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, Humanities On the MAP, sponsored by the School of Communication and the MFA in Documentary Media.

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From the Conversation

I’ve been working on prison issues in one way or another for a long time, sometimes as an activist, sometimes as a researcher and have been thinking a lot about films about the prison system try to do. As a documentarian, one is usually offered the idea that the most important thing you can get is access. And when you’re talking about something like a prison system, which is predicated on denying access it’s, it’s a place for caging certain people, but keeping everyone else out, the enforcement of the separation, then you have an immediate problem.

And so I’ve been thinking about this as a filmmakers problem that actually kind of illuminates a larger political problem, right? What does it mean to be denied access to a space of state violence? And what could I, as a filmmaker do to take this methodological problem and turn it on its head. That got me thinking a lot about trying to think about access itself differently, not as about just getting inside, but actually bringing outside the sort of questions that I think get raised when we, when we really think hard and consider what the role of the prison is in our, in our world, in our country.

I really sort of started from this place. Would it be possible to think about prisons, and do the work of illuminating and considering, and questioning the role of prisons in our society without, you know, getting permission from a warden to step inside and bring my camera in. Of course that’s a deeply compromised thing to do, and I really wanted nothing to do with it

In all of my work, I’m interested in how it is that we come to believe that this is the way things have to be. For me, that’s a political question. Why is it that the world is organized in a way that does so many bad things to so many people. The majority of people are not served by the organization of power. How do we come to accept the organization of things? I mean, even if you think about this moment right now, are literally presiding over the destruction of the very things that make life possible. We are constructing the conditions of our own extinction. Why, why would we do that? What, what paralyzes us, even when we have the knowledge that we’re doing that?

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