Monday 16 April 2012

HERMAN'S HOUSE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Hot Docs 2012 Must See #1

Herman's House (2012) dir. Angad Bhalla
Starring: Jackie Sumell, Herman Wallace


By Greg Klymkiw

Herman Wallace - African-American. Black Panther activist. Commits armed bank robbery. Sentenced to 25 years in Louisiana's Angola Prison (a former slave breeding plantation). 1972: Wrongfully convicted of murdering a prison guard. The evidence is clearly trumped up. Even the wife of the murdered guard believes a miscarriage of justice might have occurred and wants the truth. Appeal after appeal. Nothing. Herman Wallace was placed in solitary confinement. In 1972. 23 Hours a day. Every single day. A cell measuring six feet by nine feet. It is now 2012.

Solitary confinement is torture. Herman Wallace has been tortured for 40 years. Repeat. 40 years. Ladies and gentlemen, Welcome to America.

Herman's House is an extraordinary film about extraordinary people in a country that has sadly learned nothing since 1776 but the right of might, the power of the dollar and the exploitation of the poor - a country that purports to be the most powerful democracy in the world, but is little more than a backwards Totalitarian State - run by a greedy, mean-spirited, prejudiced Old Boys Club. Or, call them what you will - an oligarchy, gangsters, the New World Order - or Hell, why not all three? Bush I, Bush II, Clinton, Obama, all those before and all those who will come after - they're just puppets anyway. To paraphrase Michael Corleone in Godfather II: They're all a part of the same hypocrisy.

The people, the Real People, are the victims. Surprisingly they persevere. They shed their victimhood by fighting back - not with fists, but with the weaponry of activism, the fighting spirit of the soul.

This is a movie that will anger, frustrate and yet finally, move you to tears as it explores real compassion and understanding amongst those with the only power they have - their hearts, their minds and most of all, imagination. At times, the storytelling in this miraculous work is so artfully wrought, one occasionally forgets it's a documentary and you find yourself thinking, "Jesus, if this really happened, things are more fucked in America than I ever imagined." Then comes the proverbial pinch. You're not dreaming. You're not watching a neo-realist drama. These are real people, this really happened and is, in fact, really happening.

In America.

When the New York artist Jackie Sumell heard about the plight of Herman Wallace, she began to correspond with him. In time they forged a deep friendship on opposite ends of the country - one free, the other in prison. And not just prison - solitary confinement.

For a crime he did not commit. (And even if he did, which he clearly did not, but just saying - even if he did, you do not torture someone for 40 years. Unless, of course, you are a Totalitarian State - which, though some try to deny it - America most certainly is.)

Jackie began to use her power as an artist to imagine and create the world in which Herman lived. Soon, she began to plumb his imagination and try to discover what a man in solitary might concoct if he could have his very own dream home. Working strictly from Herman's specifications, Jackie created an art piece that represented Herman's design. Not only did Jackie create a work of art (that has toured to five countries), she was able to provide a vehicle for Herman to plumb the depths of his dreams.

Director Angad Bhalla spent five years following this story. We meet with Herman's family, friends and former cell mates and are privy to telephone conversations between Jackie and Herman. On subject matter alone, this would have been a fine film, but it goes well beyond having great material. This is a real movie made by a real filmmaker, surrounded by a first-rate team of collaborators - all of whom have rendered a picture of finely wrought drama and cinematic artistry of a very high order.

Ricardo Acosta's editing skillfully juggles several years worth of material and delivers a compelling forward thrust. The top-drawer cinematography by Bhalla and Iris Ng is full of superlative compositions and a magnificent, deft use of light. Punctuating much of the film are a series of stunning animated sequences by Nicolas Brault that blend perfectly with the overall mise-en-scene.

The sound mixing by the legendary Daniel Pellerin is especially brilliant - capturing the delicate blend of superb location sound, voice-over, Ken Myhr's highly evocative musical score and most astoundingly, the recordings of Herman on the phone (eerily and occasionally punctuated with a computer generated voice that reminds us that the State Correctional Institute is monitoring the conversation).

Welcome to 1984 in 2012.

Welcome, once again, to America!!!

What I love about this film is that it's infused with an independent spirit. The production value and artistry are of a high order, but there's nothing slick about it. Nothing feels machine-tooled in the way so many contemporary documentaries are fashioned. It's grass-roots storytelling - replete with passion, vigour and a deep emotional core.

And, Goddamn!

It's one hell of a great story!

"Herman's House" is playing in Toronto at the Hot Docs 2012 Film Festival on Fri, Apr 27 9:00 PM - TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, Wed, May 2 9:15 PM - The ROM Theatre and Sun, May 6 9:30 PM - TIFF Bell Lightbox 2. For tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE. If you miss it at Hot Docs, I can't imagine the film not being picked up and handled properly by a great theatrical distributor. This movie needs to be seen far and wide. The official Herman's House website is HERE.