The 2020 ReFrame Festival’s second screening on its first official full day was Nance Ackerman’s Conviction, a Canadian documentary about a group of women in a Nova Scotia Women’s Prison. It was filmed in 2019, with many of the shots being done by the incarcerated women themselves; they were given video cameras for periods of time to film their point of view from behind steel bars. Some of the women who were released from prison during the filming were allowed to borrow the cameras to film their first days back in the world. Unfortunately for some of them, they ended up right back in their same cells within days.
The film, promoted as “Not another broken prison film,” but rather a “broken society” film, focused on how women ended up in the system of incarceration, and the challenges that they faced upon release. Many of the women experienced childhood abuse, mental illness, addiction, and poverty before serving their sentences. Other inmates were there intentionally, in order to have some semblance of structure in their lives. The images in the documentary were sometimes shocking, as we saw one woman’s self-harming habits where she set her own hand on fire. Other moments were heartbreaking, as women relapsed into addiction upon release. Some did not have homes to go back to, and one ended up spending her first free night on the roof of an apartment building, alone, with only a towel to warm her.
It was not all bad, though. The documentary showed how the women inside were encouraged to create their own stop-motion short films on what their perfect worlds would be like. One woman voiced that “rape and abuse wouldn’t exist in the English language in [her] world,” while another, speaking about their complete lack of natural environment at the prison, asked, “Why isn’t there grass? Why can’t we have a tree? At least give us a tree.”
The women showed great initiative in a project they named “From the Ground Up,” a theoretical homing project for women who were in danger of being incarcerated. The women drew mind maps of things that were most important to them and even built a diorama of their safe haven. They explained that it would be a farm, with animals to take care of and food to grow, where women could get clean, get counselling, and help others in a circular system.
The documentary was inspired by Senator Kim Pate, and the rising numbers of women who are sent to prison, often because they have nowhere else to go. The Elizabeth Fry Society was a large part of the filming and presentation. Elizabeth Fry, who lived from 1780 to 1845, was part of the Quaker (Religious Society of Friends) group, which is still active and present in Peterborough. Before the screening itself at The Venue in downtown Peterborough, a spokesperson notified the audience that a counsellor was present in the venue to help with any emotional distress after the filming. The hashtag for the documentary, #BuildCommunitiesNotPrisons, is a statement about the incorrect usage of government money being spent on incarceration instead of aid in communities. It is largely thought that, if women in dangerous situations were given the help they needed, they would not be incarcerated in the first place.
The documentary was a saddening yet insightful look at the rising number of women who are being thrown into prisons in Canada and worldwide, and what others are doing to help. If you would like to know more, please visit convictiondocumentary.com.