Community Cinema Broadens Inmates’ Horizons
Documentary filmmaker Leo Chiang recalls how he felt when invited by ITVS to screen his film “A Village Called Versailles” for inmates in a San Francisco jail: “I was taken aback at first, and then I was excited. I had never been inside a jail, and I wasn’t about to pass up the chance.”
That screening was part of ITVS’ flagship community engagement program, Community Cinema. After launching in about ten markets, the program mushroomed to roughly 90 cities around the country. In community centers, art museums and other venues, participants screen Independent Lens films before broadcast and engage in lively discussions about the films’ themes.
Community Classroom is the educational outreach component of Community Cinema, and screenings in prisons and jails allow ITVS to connect with a new population. “We feel that reaching the incarcerated population very closely aligns with ITVS’ mission of reaching underserved audiences,” says Annelise Wunderlich, National Community Engagement and Education Manager at ITVS.While prisoners may have access to the media, “positive messages to engage and have a dialogue around” are not plentiful, she notes.
ITVS is working with inmates in two different settings. One is the Five Keys Charter School in San Francisco, the first charter high school based in a jail. Inmates who do not have their high school diplomas are required to work towards that credential.
The other setting is in Los Angeles, where ITVS National Community Cinema Coordinator Desiree Gutierrez has moderated group screenings through the M.E.R.I.T. Program, an educational and life skills course for inmates, many of whom have been involved in domestic violence and drug-related crimes.
“The San Francisco [high school] program is exciting because it is based on a restorative justice philosophy and reintegration into the community. Education, reconciliation with victims, parenting classes, drug counseling—it’s a holistic system of services and education to help people reintegrate into their communities in a healthier way and take responsibility for the harm that they’ve caused,” notes Wunderlich. “That’s a really good fit with ITVS programming, which is about creating healthier communities, creating dialogues and social change.”
Inmates have found the moderated film screenings rewarding. Favorite topics have been as wide-ranging as the environmental justice themes raised in Leo Chiang’s film to origami (Vanessa Gould’s “Between the Folds”). Says Gutierrez, “The men we screen the films for are very appreciative, engaged and have very well thought-out and articulated questions and comments. They love Community Cinema.”
As the Community Cinema and Community Classroom programs look to the future, staff hope to work with juvenile facilities and women inmates. As Wunderlich concludes, “The films are a window into such diverse worlds. That’s very attractive to inmates who are closed off from the world—and it’s an opportunity to build empathy for different people in different situations.”