Prison Songs follows inmates of Darwin’s Berrimah Prison telling tales of their lives through song. Gripping, brutally honest, and often humorous, Kelrick Martin’s documentary humanises the numbers of indigenous over-representation in Australian jails.
The first Australian musical-documentary, Prison Songs is uniquely comprised of personal interviews with Berrimah inmates, leading into video-clip style songs of them performing their stories. Despite the use of award-winning songwriters to aid in their portrayal, Martin believed it was extremely important to have the inmates perform their own stories.
“It allows discriminating people to actually hear a person, a human being, than rather a statistic,” Martin said.
The choice to utilise music instead of a two-dimensional style of documentary telling allows for a greater audience connection with the tales of inmates.
“When people hear someone sing their story as opposed to hear that story in an interview, it allows people to connect with that person in a much more unique way.”
To Martin’s acclaim, the film showcases the multiplicities of personalities and emotions implicit in the indigenous incarceration experience. By de-constructing statistics through personal songs, the characters, aspirations and personalities of inmates shine through.
Max, 27, comes from a privileged upbringing whose incarceration following armed robbery symbolises a deviation from his path. Rapping about existing “somewhere in the middle” of black and white, Dale 27, conceptualises a sense of indigenous identity crisis. Whilst, Phil, 53 is a humorous character, paints prison as a haven, a “Berrimah Hilton” that saves him from a crippling heroin addiction.
The mix of humour, among stories of struggle, allows Prison Songs to represent incarceration as a microcosm of broader human life.
Martin said: “It’s all about ups and downs, and light and shade. That’s how you allow yourself to connect to someone when you can see them going through those emotions.”
The prison itself is quite a melting pot, bringing together urbanised and traditional indigenous experiences.
“Berrimah brought a real blend of people who were that real urbanised indigenous population weighted with people who spoke English as their first, second or third language in their community who had a completely different cultural practices and relationships,” Martin said.
In the Northern Territory, where Prison Songs is set, 86 per cent of the prisoners are indigenous Australians. Nationwide, although making up less than three per cent of the population, imprisonment rates are 12 times more than the wider population. These figures are worse for juvenile detention rates, with young indigenous people 24 times more likely to be in detention.
Martin said that this incredibly important issue is not merely a matter of “do a crime, do the time.”
“There are social barriers that have built up and hurdles that are wavered against indigenous people that are leaving them susceptible to be put into jail and inviting them into this endless cycle of incarceration.”
The single-minded approach of building more prisons once one is full, Martin said, should focus on a more concerted effort to address the underlying issues contributing to indigenous incarceration.
“Because once it happens, it’s often like a one-way road for a lot of these people.”
“I think most Australians know it’s a problem, they know the statistics are bad, but they just can’t connect to the issue.”
The main aim of the film, according to Martin, is to get behind the overwhelming statistics and create something mainstream audiences could watch, and through song, they could connect to.
“The fact that at the end of the day is they are human beings. First Australians, with thousands of years of social and cultural connection to this country,” Martin said.
“Human beings, just like they are.”
Prison Songs offers a ground-breaking snippet at an important issue more Australian should be talking about, and is a must-see film.
Luckily, for those who missed Prison Songs at RTRFM’s Gimme Some Truth music documentary festival, it airs tonight on SBS at 11pm and will be available on SBS on Demand thereafter.
4.5 out of 5 Stars
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