It's Criminal

It's Criminal is filmmaker Signe Taylor's moving and arresting portrait of incarcerated women, privileged Dartmouth students, and what happens when they come together to write and stage a play. "It will change you," says Professor Ivy Schweitzer to her students, speaking of the journey upon which her Women and Gender Studies class is about to embark. Watching It's Criminal might change the viewer as well. You could be that viewer on June 3 when the film makes its hometown premiere as part of the White River Indie Film festival at the Barrette Center in White River Junction VT.

It's a documentary that is gorgeously shot, in cinema verité style. It tells many stories--stark economic inequality that bleeds over into the current criminal justice system is but one. Imagine the reaction of women inmates spending a year or more in prison for drug-related crimes when, in the middle of the making of this film, a few Dartmouth students are arrested for cocaine possession and the charges all but disappear. Huh?

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Taylor touches on other themes: the pain and powerlessness of women trying to parent while incarcerated, the ubiquity of abuse of women and its lasting scars, the gaze of those on the outside who reduce prisoners to barely two-dimensional cardboard cutouts rather than human beings with thoughts and history. In her dialogues with her students, Schweitzer poses questions that challenge our understanding of personal responsibility as the only narrative that explains incarceration. She comments also about what happens in jail and asks: what if we used incarceration as a means of helping human beings, returning them to the outside as healed and better people?

Since I write about the arts, one of the themes that resonated deeply with me was the power of making theater. Pati Hernandez (performer with the renowned Bread and Puppet theater company), who co-teaches this course with Schweitzer, leads the enterprise's artistic vision, and she is a force to behold. Drummer, dancer, director, listener, cajoler, her interactions are deeply human and authentic as she somehow produces magic. One woman credits Pati and the class with saving her life. Another is more minimalist but no less heartfelt when she says, "Now I'm a little bit hopeful." That is no faint praise.

The film is not sentimental or easy. The conversations between the students and the incarcerated women are presented in sometimes stilted fashion as the two groups try to understand each other. "Hated her," says one of the women about a Dartmouth student who was wearing a pair of pearl earrings. Another questions whether "we are just an experiment." The students present their own pain--trying to succeed on a campus where expression of vulnerability is frowned upon. Toward the end of the film, someone in the play's audience claims she couldn't tell the students from the inmates. "You're all the same," she says. But they're not. "I'm damaged," mourns Malika, in jail for drug possession. "We are so damn lucky," says one of the Dartmouth students, out loud.

It's Criminal will be screened on June 3 at 7:00 p.m at the Barrette Center. Taylor, Schweitzer, and others from the film will be on hand for a post-screening discussion. More information and tickets are available on WRIF's website:

For my quick take on the entire WRIF festival, please click here.

(Photos by Charleen Music and used by permission of Signe Taylor. My thanks to Ms. Taylor for providing me the opportunity to preview this film.)

I write about the arts and other interesting things in the Upper Valley. Please sign up to receive an email each time I post something new by clicking here.  To view my profile page or to read previous posts, please click here.

Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge


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