Imagine living in a 6’x9’ space. Imagine living there alone. Imagine existing in such cramped quarters for forty years. Whoever got such a sentence must have done something terribly horrific.
Angad Bhalla chose the fascinating story of Herman Wallace (one third of the nefarious Angola 3 when the Black Power movement was a force to be reckoned with), who, just a few years in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary (originally convicted of bank robbery), was confined to solitary after being convicted of murdering a prison guard.
What drives the film is artist Jackie Sumell’s relationship with Wallace. Outraged when she learned of his decades in solitary, she sent him some photos of her life on the outside. Delighted to be thought of in such an unusual way, the pair soon connect and are now relatively inseparable (Wallace has yet another court date this spring). During her visits, there is a double screen between them, making Wallace appear to be just a dark outline of a man; most of their time together is spent on the telephone.
Knowing this, Bhalla has constructed a cinematic gem that artfully let’s viewers hear the perennial convict by captioning his voice in purposeful black-and-white, adding brilliant bits of animation (Wallace’s dream fading into the prison’s forest of grim reality is exceptionally well executed, kudos to Nicolas Brault’s inventive renderings, Iris Ng’s deft cinematography and Ricardo Acosta’s seamless editing) and the professional and personal colours that flow so readily from Sumell as she begins the process of building “Herman’s dream house.”
To reinforce the somewhat childlike tone (Herman’s house is first rendered for Sumell’s exhibit in dollhouse style; Wallace seems oddly content to return to solitary after an eight-month hiatus in the dormitory—the details of his “general prohibitive behaviours” are never revealed), composer Ken Myhr was tastefully woven a covey of innocent waltzes into the fabric at key moments (notably Sumell’s bike ride in New Orleans as she scouts for the perfect plot).
In the end, it seems that the notion of Herman’s house will remain the bond between the unlikely couple even as Sumell sports a Black Panther top and Wallace continues to offer her sage, fatherly advice from inside. There is no mood of scandalous injustice or unquenchable anger, rather a Nelson Mandela-like stoicism that patiently awaits a resolution satisfactory to all. JWR