Hot Docs 2012: ‘Herman’s House’ a deeply moving account of penitentiary life
Directed by Angad Singh Bhalla
Today is April 24th 2012. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of Herman Wallace’s initiation to a punitive epoch in solitary confinement. This commemoration is made even more lamentable when we learn that he’s been there ever since.
In a documentary shot over five years, Toronto filmmaker, Angad Singh Bhalla, tells the story of Jackie Sumell, an American artist looking to give Wallace a small semblance of life and humanity. At times an intricate political statement and at others a torrid character study, Herman’s House is a contemplative look into the searing brutality of the American justice system, as well as the seemingly altruistic compassion of strangers.
In 1972, a 25-year old Wallace was already repaying his 25-year debt to society for a bank robbery, when he was accused, and convicted, of murdering Brent Miller, a 23-year old Angola Prison guard. Many believed him to be innocent, but their ire was further exasperated when he was constricted to a 6-by-9-foot jail cell.
In 2001, while attending a lecture about solitary confinement, Sumell learned about Wallace’s languishing situation. Outraged, she contacted him. Since sending her first letter, Sumell and Wallace have struck up an unlikely relationship.
After getting him to contemplate his dream house, Sumell created an art show called The House that Herman Built, which uses Wallace and his concepts as afflatus. But when Wallace asks her to turn his abstractions into a physical reality, Sumell goes to New Orleans to try and make his dreams come true.
Early on, the most disconcerting aspect of the film is Sumell’s unexplained devotion and loyalty to a complete stranger – a convict no less. But what Bhalla masterfully does is let us into her psyche by letting Sumell open up about her history and past experiences. Through these revelations, she is revealed to be a fragile and emotionally vitiated person.
In a somewhat similar fashion, Sumell has lived a life of seclusion and isolation. For instance, we learn that she was the first female to play full contact football in Long Island. Being different, eccentric and anomalous, it is implied that Sumell has lived a socially imposed solitary life, which, no doubt, allowed her to connect with Wallace on an unspoken level.
Furthermore, her relationship with Wallace could be seen as compensation for her turbulent, and malevolent, relationship with her father. As such, we can see Wallace as a father figure to Sumell – as a paternal proxy. And when we consider how she is the catalyst for his escapism, their mutually significant relationship takes on a lyrical and poetic beauty.
Although this relationship is by far the most intriguing and captivating feature of the documentary, Herman’s House also includes subtly caustic criticisms of both the policies of the Bush Administration and the American judicial system (although the latter is not as muted).
Since the film was shot over a period of five years, it is within reason to presume that Herman’s House was recorded during the height of the Bush presidency. As such, it’s also within reason to draw parallels between Wallace’s judicial maltreatment and indefinite detention with some of Bush’s domestic and foreign policies (namely Guantanamo Bay).
There are even mentions of torture, as well as a heated debate between Sumell and an elder gentleman about the validity and practicality of cruel and unusual punishment. When we are hearing phone conversations between Wallace and Sumell (we never see his face), there is an audible disclaimer about the possibility of their conversation being recorded. Put into context, the comparisons are unavoidable and essential, if somewhat untimely.
The only genuine impediment to the film’s often-powerful narrative is the occasional, but off-putting, breaking of the fourth wall. Namely, there are instances where we actually see the crew in frame. While one inclusion could be forgivable, this happens on more than one occasion, reminding us that this is indeed a movie and reducing the film’s overall realism.
But nevertheless, Herman’s House is documentary filmmaking on strong form, and will likely remind viewers of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. Although the film never questions Wallace’s innocence or presumed guilt, it succeeds in telling a deeply moving account of penitentiary life. In making a film about unattainable desires, Bhalla has made a picture with power beyond his wildest dreams.
– Justin Li
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