Filmmaker Interview

POV: In your own words what is Herman's House is about?

Angad Bhalla: Herman's House is really a story about a friendship between two people, both of whom are in totally extraordinary circumstances. One is the longest serving solitary confinement prisoner in America. He's been in solitary since 1972. The other is an artist who is really trying to explore how we think about political issues, prisons, in an amazingly creative way. They come together on this project, the House That Herman Built, to let people understand what Herman's been through, through the lens of his imagination. She basically asked him a question ten years ago, "what kind of house would you dream of?" having been in solitary at that point for three decades. The film basically follows the journey of their art project and more importantly their friendship as it's really tested as they try to realize his dream home - tested by the system that he's in, tested by the criminal justice system and the prison system that's kept him in solitary for so long.

POV: So he's been in solitary confinement for almost forty years? Why? What did he do to first of all be in prison in Louisiana but then also to be in solitary confinement?

Bhalla: He was originally imprisoned for a bank robbery and that occurred in 1967 and after years of being in prison, he actually became very politically active. He joined the Black Panther Party while in prison, so he was politicized as a prisoner in Angola Prison, at the time was the most violent prison in America and still is extremely violent. Angola was segregated and was a very rough place; the Black Panther Party in the prison was trying to change that. They were trying to change some of the rules and try to give prisoners more dignity. Then in 1972 a guard was murdered and literally on the day the guard was murdered, all the Black Panther Party members were put in solitary. This was before any evidence had been collected, before they'd been tried or anything. Eventually four were put on trial and two were convicted and they are Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox.

POV: So what exactly is solitary confinement. What does that mean?

Bhalla: So the broadest sense of the term is you're being held 23 hours a day, seven days a week in a cell. In that one hour, there are varying levels of opportunities that you may have. If he wants to make a phone call outside of the prison, that has to happen during that hour. If he wants to exercise outside, that has to happen in that hour. If he wants to take a shower, not in his toilet, which is often what he may choose to do, that happens in that hour. So that's a daily choice of saying what am I going to do with that hour and in all cases it's had dramatically debilitating impacts on the people held there, both psychological and physical. In Herman's case, he has arthritis. Estimates range but we're looking at up to 80,000 prisoners in America who are held in some level of isolation or segregation — but some people are held there for short periods, so it's hard to state at one particular moment how many people are being held in isolation or solitary.

POV: Who is Jackie Sumell and what exactly is the art project that she embarks on?

Bhalla: Jackie Sumell is an amazing artist and a friend of mine before I actually started on this film. Their project together, The House That Herman Built, really started in a very beautiful way because I don't think she even imagined it as an art project. The art project was really a way to get him to think about something else other than prison — "Every day he's in solitary, he's in prison, how can I get him to think outside of those confines?" So she asked him this question, "what kind of house does a man who spent over three decades in a 6 by 9 cell dream of?"

POV: You mentioned that you knew Jackie from the past. At what point did you enter the picture and say to yourself, this is an interesting relationship, this is an interesting project, and I want to capture it in a documentary film?

Bhalla: One of the galleries that had showed the exhibit put out a book that included edited correspondence between them. She obviously had picked and edited this specific correspondence. She was visiting New York and I read the book and I was like wow, this is actually a really amazing friendship. This is also something that you don't see when you just go see the exhibit. There's something more here. That was one element. Also I really realized that it could be a film when I first spoke to Herman on the phone. I realized that access to the prison in this film was going to be hard — impossible actually — and if I was going to actually make it, I couldn't assume there would be access. I would have to make it basically on phone calls. And hearing both, my first conversation with him and the two of them speak on the phone and the kind of camaraderie and familiarity they had with each other, I really thought this could work.

POV: Can you talk a little bit your lack of access to Herman and how you handled that hurdle stylistically by never showing him?

Bhalla: The audience never sees Herman. I was pretty certain from the beginning that would be the case. I knew the prison system was not going to grant me access to film him because he's just not somebody whose story they want to be getting out. But for me, once I realized we were only going to hear him I thought that we should go all the way. Let's not pretend that he's available because in fact the film is about being in solitary confinement — not seeing the person in solitary confinement reinforces that. It reinforces the fact that we don't have access to him and he doesn't have access to us. Now what that meant also is that I was going to make the audience do a little bit of work and that's a risk in any kind of storytelling and filmmaking. But I felt that this is really a film about imagination and a film really about dreams and seeing beyond confinement. So maybe in the same way Herman is imagining, I would put the audience in the same space.

So we cut the film more or less to a rough cut with just his audio and then started experimenting with various options for animators. It was a really fun, but arduous process. I think we went through four animators before we landed on the person who did an amazing job. And one of the things that I really didn't want to do is have the animation feel like we were covering up what wasn't there. Somehow we were making up for some gap. That the reality is that there's nothing there. I really also didn't want the animation to be so strong that it took away from his voice when he was talking. We tried to keep it as abstract as possible and I think it really worked out well. We gave him space without covering it up, and at the same time, you're not looking at a black screen for minutes on end.

POV: You do actually talk to some prison architects about Herman's dream house. And they have an interesting perspective on Herman's vision of the world and how it might contrast with what you and I might look for in a house.

Bhalla: We interviewed the prison architects because I felt they were the flip side of him dreaming of a house outside. It's almost, who are the people who designed the place that he's in? And I think what they revealed about his designs is that a lot of his choices for his house are a direct result of his experience. He was very conscious actually of saying yeah, I could build a house like Beyoncé or just a massive thing with a swimming pool, but that's not going to tell you about my experience. So he made deliberate choices based on what he knew. And so the house actually has a lot of resemblance to prisons.

POV: At a certain point in the film, Jackie and Herman's collaboration goes beyond the initial plan. Jackie finds herself in New Orleans looking for land. What happened?

Bhalla: Both Jackie and Herman are very determined people and I felt that at a certain point, Jackie had said, after seeing how well the art exhibit had done in terms of galleries, reviews and esteem in the art world, imagine if we took this to the next level. And Herman, of course, being in solitary is going to be all for that because it allows him to just dream even bigger. They're dreaming now about land and real estate and all those possibilities. And for me as a documentarian, I think at first I wanted it to happen. And I don't know that it can't. I mean I think that there's something beautiful about trying to do things that are near impossible. That all being said, it's a Herculean task to build a house period. Then trying to do it largely through grants and donations. Also her timing was probably as bad as one could be. We didn't realize that there would be a massive real estate collapse in the country in 2007-2008 which was exactly when she decided to embark on this. The collapse not only affected the real estate market but the economy in general and grant sources that she may have been looking for.

POV: To some, Jackie's work to design Herman's imaginary house might seem futile, a pointless exercise. She's an artist, she's an activist, and she's trying to move people. What's her message?

Bhalla: I think Jackie's fundamental message with The House That Herman Built and with her project is that the criminal justice system is seriously flawed. We have more people in prisons in this country than anywhere in the world. We have over 2.2 million people in prison, 80,000 people in solitary, and if a prison is meant to reform and rehabilitate, then the number one way of measuring a prison system should be the recidivism rate, how often are people coming back in. And we have some of the worst recidivism rates in the world and no one is talking about that. No one is talking about how they're not functioning how they're supposed to function. I think publicly we see prisions both as yeah, we're trying to reform these people, but really we should punish them. And I think Jackie's work is very much about that. In looking at this particular case, and the particular issue of solitary, how is there any rehabilitation in solitary? What kind of skills are we giving someone if we're holding them 23 hours a day, seven days a week in a cell? How are they going to be productive members of society when they come out?

POV: What kind of ethical responsibilities do you think filmmakers have in terms of portraying their subjects? Did you feel beholden to Herman in some particular way about how you might portray him?

Bhalla: The biggest concern I had was the fact that he has two ongoing legal cases as we speak. His lawyers vetted the film before we released it and they had a few minor changes that we were willing to make. I think that I wouldn't have felt comfortable without knowing that nothing could inadvertently impact him. At the same time you can't infantilize your subject. You have to give them agency and perhaps things that he said to me on the phone, because all the phone calls are also recorded on by the prison, maybe they hurt him. Maybe somehow there was some retribution but he's an agent too in that and as long as you're not forcing people to say things, then I'm fine with it. If he said we can't talk about that, then you don't talk about it.

I think we recorded fifty or sixty hours of calls. Now, when people hear that number they're like oh, well, you know that's not that much. But you have to remember that I didn't have an opportunity to interview Herman like a normal documentary filmmaker would interview their subject. This was because the calls were limited to 15 minutes and then I didn't know when he'd be able to call again. Sometimes it was very convenient. He would say oh, I can call you back tomorrow. But then we'd still have to try to pick up where we were talking. There were a lot of phone calls, but a lot of them weren't necessarily always due to the film. You know I think when you talk to someone for years, you talk to them about all sorts of things and most of the time I would record it because it might be useful. But we'd talk about all sorts of things and if he needs to get messages out to the world or to his friends or to his family or to his supporters, that's something I can do. I am just one of the ten numbers he has on his list because he's only allowed to call ten numbers. And so if I'm on that list and he calls me, his time may not always be about the film.

POV: Now you're doing a lot with Herman's House beyond the actual broadcast. Can you talk about some of your other activities around the film? Online, through special media, in classrooms, in communities?

Bhalla: We're particularly working with groups and in states that have campaigns that are trying to change their policies around solitary. In Arizona this film is being screened because they're planning on building a new prison that would be all isolation and they're screening the film to illustrate maybe that's not the best use of taxpayer money. In other states it's about reducing the size of their solitary population. But we're also very much interested in working with arts communities. Actually we presented parts of the film to the conference of architects that design prisons. And there was a proposal made by another member of the conference that maybe solitary cells are not ethical and we should reform our ethics code to say that both solitary cells and execution chambers shouldn't be built. We shouldn't build them in the same way that doctors, as that part of their medical code, don't participate in torture. And so I think those are really interesting and creative ways of expanding this conversation.

POV: Thematically if you were to describe your film, what would you say it's about? What's the overarching message of your film?

Bhalla: The prison system in America is deeply flawed and we need to change it. At the same time we need to use our imaginations and we need to think imaginatively if we're going to address any of the problems that we have in society. It's not just a matter of dollars and cents and hard nosed politics. We need to actually start imagining what kinds of worlds we want to live in and then see that reflected. Everyone needs to be a part of this conversation. I think when we leave things to experts, when we leave things to those who spend all their time studying something they actually lose those imaginative possibilities, this gets harder and harder. When you're doing something day in, day out all the time, your views slowly get narrower and into more of the minutia. And so I think that we need a broader conversation about the criminal justice system and the prison system in this country and artists definitely need to be a part of it. Everyone in the general public should join as well. Because it's definitely not going well.