In 1998 we premiered THE FARM at the Sundance Film Festival. I couldn’t even sit in the theater, but paced outside on pure nerves, peeking in from time to time to feel the audience response. Ninety minutes later the credits rolled, the applause began, the standing ovation and the energy it inspired were harbingers of good times ahead. Its success (we were Grand Jury Prize winners) shaped my career in ways I can never fully understand.
Last week, on June 3rd, over a decade later, I premiered THE FARM: TEN DOWN in Angola Prison. The setting could not have been further removed from Park City, Utah. Instead of a big screen in a theater, we were watching on a large size television monitor in the visiting room of the prison. Instead of filmmakers, film fanatics, media, festival directors, there were 400 inmates, guards and administrators. Then beyond the visiting room the film was being broadcast on Angola’s closed circuit television station so the other 4500 men in the prison could also watch the film and the Q&A that was to follow.
This time I was a lot more nervous.
I was sitting behind Sean Vaughn as he ran the switcher for LSPTv (Louisiana State Penitentiary Television), Angola’s prisoner run TV station. Sean is not the station manager, but he is in the film and he was about to watch it for the first time. He appears with his wife and daughter in a very personal scene and I wondered how he’d respond to seeing his life revealed in such a public way.
The Warden was in the front row. Every time something was shown that might cause the prison concern, I got worried. The Warden had not only permitted us to make this film, but he was courageous enough to allow it to be shown here and to gather the 400 men to see it live. Yet, if the film played poorly in this audience then perhaps he’d not allowed us the same access going forward.
A few seats down was Bishop Tanniehill. After 52 years locked up, 50 of them at Angola, the Bishop had flown down that very morning from New York, where he now lives, with our editor and co director, Nancy Novack. They had literally arrived minutes before the beginning of the film, just enough time to receive the applause that comes with the respect his ex fellow inmates hold for him.
One row behind the Bishop, Ashanti Witherspoon and his wife Susan were watching. Every time a scene came up with Ashanti his face lit up. Watching him watch the film was very strange. I knew he liked it, but I wondered what it must be like to watch it in the very place that had caused him so much suffering for so long. And yet, the smile on his face never seemed to disappear.
Elsewhere in the prison George and Vincent were watching. George in his dorm in Camp D. Vincent in a one man cell in Camp J. When a tense scene began I sort of wished I were with them away from the crowd.
The audience laughed at the right times. Cheered the Bishop when he shows us his home in Brooklyn. They were angry at the parole board scene with Vincent Simmons. It was very intense. But then, like a flash it was over.
The Warden stood up and gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard him give. He summarized the film, not as a movie, but as blueprint for how to live a meaningful and hopeful life in Angola prison. Each story came with a lesson.
“Guys, you study how Ashanti presented himself to the Parole Board and do the same.”
“Bishop never lost hope and took full responsibility for his deeds and miracles came his wa.y”
“George Crawford made his momma cry. Never do that. Don’t make your momma suffer any more.”
“Vincent Simmons is in a tough place and none of us can ever know if he is guilty or not, but he does not have to make his life harder here then it already is.”
…and so he helped the men digest the film and make sense of it for their lives as they sat also serving life sentences. After Bishop, Ashanti and I spoke there were questions from the audience that showed just how much it meant to see two of their own make it out of prison and lead meaningful lives as free people.
And there was, although it was just one evening, a sense of hope in Angola. This hope wasn’t based on faith or religion alone, but on the possibility that despite the terrible odds there can be a chance to change one’s destiny and find a path to freedom.
Yes, there was so much more at stake in this screening than ten years earlier. Was it a career changer? I don’t think so, but it was amazing!