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INTERVIEW WITH BARBARA ZAHM
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Barbara Zahm in May, 1997.
Can you talk about how you got involved in LOCKDOWN USA and what
was the genesis of the project?
I actually got involved in producing a film on prison reform on my own, before I met DeeDee Halleck or knew anything about LOCKDOWN. First of all, I'm a documentary filmmaker with about a 15-to-20 year history in the field. And about five or six years ago, a very good friend of mine who was an administrator for Marist College, who administrated college programs in prison, asked if I wanted to teach in the prisons. So, I thought, "That'll be really interesting," and I agreed; I started working in the prisons, and it changed my life. The experience changed my life. I had no idea what to expect. And like most people, it brought up a lot of fear and anxiety and some confusion about what it was going to be like to walk into a maximum security prison. And who I was going to meet and what was going to happen?
But it was nothing like what I expected and it became probably -- I don't know how to quite say it -- the richest experience of my life. I learned more from teaching in the prisons than anything else I had ever done. And here I was in this program of higher education, where the people who were taking college courses in prison were the ones that were most anxious for growth and change. And every week, I couldn't wait to get to my classes. There was so much movement, growth, excitement -- it was such a stimulating place. Such a rich environment. It was so magnificent. And every other teacher that had ever worked in prison programs had the same experiences.
And it was very hard to communicate to other people what it was like to work in this kind of environment where you saw people in leaps and bounds changing, opening up, you know, hitting it. Lights were going off all the time. And not only was that what made it so rich, but I was getting it. I was learning more about society, you know, about the women -- I was working in a women's prison at the time. You know, who these women were, how they got there, the stories, how the system affected them. It was just so much. I was so ignorant and I still am to so many things that I was getting. Anyhow, it was a very intense experience. And it was so clear how valuable it was in terms of changing people's lives. It actually worked. It was a completely successful program. They were motivated, etc. I can't talk about it in glowing enough terms.
In any case, the crime bill got passed, and a small, little amendment to the crime bill was that the higher education program in prisons was to be ended, defunded. And it was shocking. I couldn't believe it. It was one of the few things that actually truly worked in a progressive, helpful way in terms of the entire system, the entire nation. That helped curb crime. It changed people's lives in a positive way and it changed the system in a positive way. It was the best money spent that I had ever seen and that we as taxpayers could spend with these programs. And it was very little money. And they were being ended because of ignorance. And I was just shocked, and I knew I had to make a documentary film about some of my experiences and what was going on in prison. The whole situation stimulated me and I knew that I had to make a film. I'm a documentary filmmaker, and here I was . . . there was something really important to begin documenting.
And so, as it became clear that the programs were going to end, I wanted to document that aspect of my prison experience. And I was working in isolation. It was very hard. I was getting very rich material because of my ability to get access into the prisons, because of my position at Marist College. But I couldn't get funding and I was with interns. I was knocking myself out and having to do the shooting, the producing, the directing, the editing. It was very, very hard work. And I was getting incredibly strong footage, and people don't want to hear about prisons. The normal, liberal, progressive ear was closed to these issues at the time. There was no interest. And my normal funding sources would say, "Well, that's kind of interesting, but..." I couldn't get any support and I was feeling really isolated for a couple of years. The Paul Robeson Foundation finally gave me a small grant. People came and went in terms of being associates on the project, but I couldn't really hold on even though I knew it was extraordinarily important subject.
And finally, I ran into DeeDee, who was also trying to do work and develop a series on exactly the same issues. And I just felt so relieved to find a collaborator and a group of people that shared a vision together. And so we made the decision that we would collaborate, and it's been fabulous. I mean, it's made it possible for me to continue on in my work and that's how I joined the team, so to speak.
Oh, that's great. Now LOCKDOWN USA, the one that's going to be on Reel New York, is actually a pilot for a longer series. So, do you want to talk about how this particular program is functioning, and then what you're going to be doing from here?
LOCKDOWN USA is a pilot for a four-part series. The plan is to make four hour-long documentaries -- one of them being the last graduation -- which was mine -- on the dismantling of higher education programs in prison. And so parts of my film are incorporated into LOCKDOWN. Certain parts of it. And the other three films are similar. This is sort of a sketch of what the whole series would look like. At the moment, I'm making "The Last Graduation." The initial pilot was edited on my Avid by Cathy Scott. And I gave her help but she really was the main editor at that point, but I was working with her when this particular program got developed.
Did you do the other youth section, and the graduation section, and the section on Attica?
Right. Because those are all parts of the larger documentary. But it's called "The Last Graduation."
Maybe you could talk about each one of those. I'd like to start with the history of Attica; that section is incredibly pivotal in terms of a viewing audience really understanding the genesis of this fight about human rights in prisons. And so maybe you can talk about how this section came about for you and what it addresses.
Okay. Well, when I first began researching the whole subject myself, in talking to different people in prison or who had been in prison in New York state (because I was going to be filming in New York State primarily), I realized pretty early on that Attica was a pivotal turning point in people's memory of the prisoners demanding human rights. And the demands in Attica were all around. A lot of them were around education and certain really basic human rights. And others were around issues of education and programs. They wanted programs so that they could grow and develop. It was the beginning of a grassroots movement.
So, after Attica, even though it had been a massacre and many people had died in a very brutal and terrible way, there was a big shift in the policy in this country, in which prison reform actually began taking place. So, in a way, you could say that Attica forced it. Forced the issue. And programs began to develop in the state. There was a shift in policy. And law libraries were developed. Education programs were starting, and colleges. For the next 23 years, there was this sort of evolution of prison reform.
And in terms of my film, what I'm trying to establish is this history where you had this pendulum swing since Attica; and then what happened for the last 23 years in a positive way is now being shut down. And in terms of all these programs that evolved, it took a while for it all to develop. You know, there was the first little class brought in and it seemed to work. Eventually there were whole degree programs running out of the prisons in which the graduates became incredibly useful, productive members of society. Not only when they left prison. But there's all kinds of statistics to back up how in terms of recidivism, the lack of it, with every year of schooling that people get there's a tremendous drop in criminal behavior. In the prisons, even if they were lifers, they began running programs. The administration in prisons relied very heavily on the college graduates to help them run the prisons with a kind of a discipline and order.
It changed the mentality of the prisoners, and the hierarchy within prisons. It wasn't just the thug and the macho guy that people respected. It was the educated, intelligent prisoner. Even in the prison hierarchy. A whole different character evolved. So, what I want out of understanding Attica is to understand this whole history, and also I wanted to present it as a grassroots movement.
Right. And what do you think is making the shift now, since these reforms were so successful, to shut them down?
It's ignorance. People don't understand. It's sort of propaganda, you know, three strikes and you're out. It's hard to really understand why it's there. But it's an ignorance. They don't get it -- the public. The general public. That's why this whole series is so important: because it's countering this mass fear and propaganda-based-on-fear campaign on what to do with criminals in this country and how to deal with crime.
No, I think that's why this piece is so effective. Because of the way that it does successfully look at all of the different aspects of this issue. From media persuasion, all the way through to that whole issue of identifying with cops in these cop shows. That's been up my craw for a really long time. Because that's an absurdly manipulative form of programming. And that's all over the tube now.
Right. And there's so little countering it. Or there's nothing countering it.
No. Exactly. I would say that this program's unique.
And it's been very hard to get support. That's what is so amazing to me, as someone who's worked as a documentary filmmaker with controversial subjects for 20 years The liberal community doesn't even get it. So it just means that much more work we have to do. I feel that the whole subject is hard for me to explain. People's minds have been twisted.
You mean brainwashed?
But how can I really say seriously that the general public has been brainwashed so effectively? Well, if that's true, isn't this similar to Germany in the '30's, you know? Can I really look at our own culture and think that such a large segment has had their minds twisted to such a degree? Yes, I think so. Including myself. I walked into those prisons terrified, initially, you know what I'm saying? That's an amazing thing to actually think about in that way. But in fact, that's exactly the way it has to be looked at. Which is why when I spent the first few years teaching in the prisons, I say it was such a incredible learning experience for me. I was understanding things about our society that I didn't really get before. And I wanted to share some of the knowledge I was getting. I began to feel that was my responsibility. With or without support, I was determined to get some of what I was learning communicated.
Do you have any things that came up in the production, in the shooting of any of these pieces, that were particularly interesting moments that still affect you?
Oh, yeah. In fact, there's so many. Because when you go into a prison, it's like going into another universe. It's another world that people in the outside don't really understand in some ways. So every time you enter it, it's like going into the underworld or something. And different dynamics are taking place. I'm an anthropologist. It would be extraordinary for someone to do a real ethnographic study of the culture of prison. Each prison has its own culture, but I can't even begin to tell you what it's like because it would take so much contextualizing and development.
A few months ago, we showed the film to a group of prisoners. We were able to bring it into Arthur Kill, and it was again another very incredible dramatic moment -- this group of men who were locked up, made totally ineffectual in certain ways; to learn their insights and their understanding of their own situations in life is very powerful stuff. That was my last experience in a prison, so that's what's coming up in my mind.
I'm getting support to finish "The Last Graduation." And I think LOCKDOWN will slowly be some kind of breakthrough to cracking open people's awareness. And maybe some of the foundations will start understanding the significance of this. I do feel that the analogy to the '30's in Germany holds in some way. In a sense that this incredible monumental injustice is going down and people don't get it. And I think that that's important.
I completely agree. And I'm really glad that you all are doing this work. And hopefully the screening will get other people interested. I'm interested in the whole area partly as a result of this tape. It's really quite successful in terms of a teaching tool. It succeeds in doing the things that you're talking about erasing phobias, and the kinds of ignorance that people unconsciously carry around with them. Because there's such erasure: "Okay, that's an area I don't, I won't deal with. Period. I've got all these other things to worry about. That one I might put away. It's not my problem."
Well, if it's going on in our country under our names, with our tax dollars, we are responsible ultimately. We are all responsible for this kind of thing. I can just tell you, for instance, that day that we filmed when they're taking the books out of the prison. It was one of the most shocking moments, like burning the books, right? How can they take the books out of the prison? It's inconceivable, isn't it?
That whole "Last Graduation" section is incredibly moving. I was just brought to tears, and so was everybody who watched it. Because it's just heart-breaking to think that this is something that would be denied people. But have you screened the piece in a place where you've gotten lots of criticism, or wherever you screen it do people seem to begin to understand things?
Maybe I haven't screened it in the right context. But in that sense, I haven't gotten a lot of criticism. But it hasn't been screened that many places. It'll be interesting what happens. I mean, it's kind of the old prejudices that come up. It's like, "It's not our problem. Why should we care? These are criminals. They deserve whatever they get. I don't want to know about it."
People have just remained closed to the issue. And angry that they're being asked to think about things that they don't want to think about, and take responsibility as a citizen for things that they don't want to have to take responsibility for. And their fear and their sense of being a victim is how the prejudice is encouraged; they feel as a victim to all of these criminals. And therefore, revenge and fear continues to be an active force, rather than really taking a step back and looking at the social conditions that have led to this situation. Which is why the whole youth section is very important for me. What is creating the "crime generative conditions," as it's called. Why are generations of kids being brought up as criminals? Or being siphoned into society where criminal behavior becomes their only outlet in some ways? Where educational opportunities and other social opportunities are so lost to them? So if these "crime generative conditions" are going on in our society, then we have to take responsibility for how our society is functioning. Well, that's even more scary.
There are these are huge class issues and social issues, and I think the politicians aren't really trying to solve the issues. Is the solution to lock more and more and more people up in the prison industrial complex? It seems really ugly. And that the average American citizen is just letting it go down and not dealing with it is unbelievable to me. And it just keeps going back to Germany in the '30's. We're not taking responsibility for what's happening.
I know. Well, I really appreciate speaking with you, Barbara. This has been really great. Thought provoking. Thank you.
Yeah, no problem. Thank you.
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