The two places could not be more different: the Dartmouth College campus and the Sullivan County jailhouse. Yet, in a new documentary, college students from Dartmouth and female inmates worked together to write short plays about what it’s like to be incarcerated. The process generates a conversation about privilege and the justice system.
Seven years in the making, the film debuts this Saturday at the White River Indie Festival. NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke with the documentary’s director, Signe Taylor, about the making of the film.
This film follows a group of students taking a class at Dartmouth. What is the class and what does it require?
The class takes place during sophomore summer, and the name of the class is Prison, Women, and Performance. It’s taught by two Dartmouth professors, Ivy Schweitzer, from the English Department, and Pati Hernandez, who’s an adjunct professor and also the founder of an organization called Telling My Story.
Pati and Ivy work together to make this amazing class, where students are exposed to both theoretical information about incarceration, addiction, recovery, poverty, privilege—and they’re also given an experiential, hands-on opportunity to work with incarcerated women.
It’s done in a very thoughtful and authentic way. The students and the women work together over the course of ten weeks to develop skits, which eventually turn into a play that they perform at the jail for outside community members.
When you say thoughtful way, does that mean both students and inmates get something out of this process?
Yeah, absolutely. The entire intent of this class, from the perspective of the incarcerated women, is to give them voice, to support women who have oftentimes been quite silenced—to give them time, space, opportunity, and voice. It’s very much about supporting the women on their journey—and this may be a little cliché—toward a better future.
The students learn a lot, and the women learn a lot. Everybody learns a lot not only about themselves, but about everybody else in the class.
One of the things the students learn comes from a simple question a student asked at the outset of the class: what are these women in for. The question is more complicated, because it’s not just the thing they did, it’s the system itself that caused them to be there for the particular length of time that they’re there.
Yes, and professor Schweitzer addresses this quite eloquently in the film, when she talks about personal responsibility. That tends to be the narrative when it comes to incarceration: What did they do that put them behind bars? What did they do wrong? The jails are a place we’ve put people who have done things wrong.
There’s rarely an examination of the life circumstances and the differences in income or opportunity that land some people in jail and other people on the way to Dartmouth. That, for me, is the heart of the film. I’m a firm believer in the American Dream and equal opportunity. Even if they’re myths, they’re myths I believe in.
So the film is about what happens when those myths break down, and what happens to the people who are on either side of those.
As a filmmaker, was it difficult to gain the trust of the women in prison?
Well, no. For many of the women in jail, they want to tell their stories.
If you look at our country, incarcerated women might be some of the most silenced people in the United States. If you say, I want to know how this happened, how did you get here—and not like I want to hear everything you did wrong and I want to punish you, but what was it like for you growing up? Did you go to high school, did you go to college?
Being given the opportunity to speak their stories, the women really welcomed it.
The film deals with two groups of people that are easy to stereotype. The Dartmouth student is the epitome of privilege, and inmates are almost the opposite of that, and some would assume that they’re in there for good reason and they deserve it. Your film seems to push back on both those assumptions.
I think one of the biggest dangers that’s confronting our country, if that’s not too highfalutin, is that we live in very segregated silos, that we are becoming more and more divided economically, ethnically, politically. So I think it’s really easy, when you don’t interact with people on a daily basis, to have prejudices, stereotypes, and fears.
This film was my way of saying, let’s listen to each other.
To what extent do you think that we as a culture need to really pay more attention to privilege?
I think that’s a huge, huge issue. I was raised by an economist, so I was raised with a very clear understanding of my privilege.
I think other people might not have had that same experience growing up, so when you arrive at where you’re going, let’s say college, it takes a lot of work to get there—you have to work hard to get the grades, to get the test scores. So when you arrive, you think you’re there because you worked hard.
But you might not have that awareness that you were given the opportunity to work hard, and other people weren’t given those opportunities.
It seems like the film intentionally doesn’t offer corrective to that problem.
That is out of respect to Pati and Ivy, and their process. Pati and Ivy would say it’s not the place of the students to “help” the incarcerated women, it’s not the place of the incarcerated women to “help” the students. It’s our place to work together, to create together—in the case of this class, to create a play together.
While life may have given some people more privilege, and made it easier to get Dartmouth and made it almost inevitable, in some cases, for the women to end up in jail—we don’t need to help each other. We need to be there for each other, we need to understand each other, we need to support each other, but “help” is a little patronizing.
So what we’re talking about here is empathy.
Yes, thank you. Empathy.