‘The Prison in Twelve Landscapes’ impresses with rich, powerful narratives


Jenna Liu

An ex-convict dominates the New York City chess park scene. Residents of a small, Eastern Kentucky town place their hope for economic recovery in the return of a local prison. The disembodied voice of a female prisoner describes her role on an inmate fire crew fighting the blazes that burn across California.
These are among the first stories that make up “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes,” a film consisting of vignettes that explore incarceration in America without ever venturing into a penitentiary. Instead, director Brett Story takes her cameras into businesses and homes and on to street corners and football fields; the everyday geographic sites that could not be farther from the four walls of a prison cell.
There is no chronological significance to the order in which the “landscapes” play out. Each arrives and leaves with a seamless ease; white letters briefly spelling out the location before dissolving off the screen. The settings range from a slick office building in Detroit to a cramped radio studio in Appalachia, yet Story still manages to capture a consistent richness in each frame. The steady hand manning the camera contributes the same calm touch to the tight shot that displays every crease and eyelid flutter as it does to the wide view of a train gliding across an arched bridge.
This cinematographic approach helps to weave a continuous thread through each story, as varied as they are. In a way, ‘The Prison in Twelve Landscapes’ resembles a carefully choreographed dance. There is a deliberateness to how information and stories are conveyed that does not betray the authenticity emanating from the entire product, a tribute to Avril Jacobson’s skillful editing.
While the first half of the film presents a solid combination of informative and poignant interviews and profiles, the arc reaches a crescendo when the filmmakers travel to Ferguson, Missouri. For me and many others watching those scenes in a Columbia, MO theater, the inequity shown in the courts of St. Louis County hit close to home.  One woman interviewed cannot keep her voice strong as she recounts being ticketed, fined and eventually locked up for not securing her trash can lid to the can. Residents at every turn have similarly infuriating tales of injustice; all are African-American.
The documentary’s incorporation of these personal narratives, as well as a powerful sequence filmed on the street where Michael Brown was shot, explicitly addresses the unavoidable reality of racial inequality in the American justice system. In a country where black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, ‘The Prison in Twelve Landscapes’ deftly navigates the issue without pontificating.
The film’s greatest strength, especially evident in Ferguson and Baltimore, lies in how deeply the audience can connect with the subjects, despite each vignette’s limited length. It presents an unabashed look at fear and love and anger and joy, with an intensity of emotion that jumps through the screen.
Still, the high “landscape” count sometimes stretches each one thin. There are a few stories that, while beautifully shot, seem a little like unfinished sketches. The overall collection may have been better served by cutting down on the number of separate perspectives the audience is treated to.
That being said, it’s difficult to say if the film would possess the same resonance with some of its pieces missing. As it is now, it has stitched together a forceful and vivid overview of the criminal justice system. Thought-provoking, startling and powerful, “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” is a lesson in empathy and an outstanding exploration of how thoroughly the prison permeates American lives.