The justice system around the world is cyclical: each stage has its own rules yet feeds into the next. Some systems are dysfunctional in some ways and smooth in others. Some are rotten to the core. With this three-part focus we follow this circular structure through each of its steps — Policing, The Courts, and Prisons.


Is there a more cinematic space than a prison? In reality they may range from real-world visions of hell to sterile spaces characterized by banality and drabness. The one thing they have in common in being depicted onscreen is their potency as spaces: the setting itself is enough to inspire the emotional twists and turns of an entire genre of cinema. Is there a single institution in human society that has inspired more great movies than the prison? Confined spaces. Impenetrable walls. Friction between tense cellmates at their wit's end. And of course, perilous night-time escapes over wall and through rain-filled ditch. It is a genre of film entirely stemming from the imposing psychological presence of prisons in the popular imagination.

What does that mean for non-fiction? The simple fact is that documentaries about prisons can be even stranger than fiction. They can show us female prisoners forced to fight fires in California. They can show us the genuine last meals of prisoners on death row, as is the case in the aptly-titled Last Supper. They show us the stygian inside of a medical and psychological ward in a Marseille prison, with the screeches and howls of the inmates all around. We can see many kinds of prisons, sinister places of confinement, former vessels of police states. There is, for example, "Amerykanka", the headquarters and notorious torture centre of the KGB in Minsk, Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe. In Viktor Korzoun's film of the same name, we see people confined immediately following a protest against the results of the presidential elections of 19 December, 2010. We can also see something as banal and routine as it is utterly heartbreaking, such as Mother's Day in prison.

In other words, the world of prisons in the world of documentary spans an even greater horizon than the generic business of mean words exchanged over dinner trays and filing at door handles with nail files. Looking at prisons in a non-fiction context turns up a universe of visual, aural, and emotional possibilities.

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Films in Spotlight is powered by Doc Alliance, a creative partnership of 7 key European documentary film festivals. Our aim is to advance the documentary genre, support its diversity and promote quality creative documentary films.

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