A portrait of an invisible man, "Herman's House" is a raised voice in the constitutional debate over solitary confinement, as well as a film about art: What would "dream home" mean to a man who's spent nearly 40 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell?

A portrait of an invisible man, “Herman’s House” is a raised voice in the constitutional debate over solitary confinement, as well as a film about art: What would “dream home” mean to a man who’s spent nearly 40 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell? Asking that question led to an eight-year odyssey for artist Jackie Sumell, resulting in a docu that’s equal parts social protest, conceptual cinema and criminal-justice critique. Theatrical exposure seems unlikely, but TV play reps the best bet for a film eager to air its message to the widest audience possible.

Herman Wallace, who was 69 at the time of the docu’s production, was sent to the notorious Louisiana State Prison at Angola for bank robbery when he was 25. Following the brutal murder of a corrections officer in 1972, he was put in solitary confinement, and was subsequently convicted of the killing with another prisoner (on what is described in the film as the suspect testimony of other inmates). Wallace has been kept in solitary, virtually 23 hours a day, for 38 years — according to the film, longer than any other prisoner in the history of the American penal system.

That Wallace might not be guilty certainly makes him a more sympathetic figure, but it’s not really the point of the film or Sumell’s work. As an art student, Sumell, who grew up in a dysfunctional but privileged Long Island environment, heard a lecture on solitary confinement, and responded to the arguments that it not only constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, but may in fact be torture. Setting out to channel her creativity and angst (“The best activism is equal parts anger and love,” she says), Sumell constructs a wooden replica of Wallace’s 6-by-9-foot cell and makes it an art-gallery installation. In the process, she develops a friendship with Wallace that is conducted mostly by phone (their few meetings can’t even be described as face-to-face, since he’s obscured by multiple screens), and together they engage in the dream-house project — which begins in virtual reality, and then starts to intrude on actual reality.

Bhalla struggles to balance the film between Wallace and Sumell, whose story was bound to have less gravitas, no matter how troubled her parents’ marriage was or how complicated her relationship is with her father. Trying to give the two subjects equal weight feels uncomfortable, even when the resolution of a given scene puts the film back on the Wallace track. It is interesting, however, that Sumell was the first girl to play competitive tackle football on Long Island, attesting to the kind of tenacity she needs to realize Wallace’s highly improbable dream.

“Herman’s House” never provides a visual sense of Wallace; some photos are glimpsed, but they’re obscured. And yet his voice, heard at regular intervals on the scratchy telephone inside Angola, provides a distinct persona, as he instructs, sometimes chastises and occasionally comforts Sumell while she tries to raise funds and find the right property.

One of the film’s more intriguing aspects concerns the design of Herman’s House. Architects Frank Green, Melissa Farling and Jeff Goodale weigh in on the design, with its strange specificities, and while they find it beautiful, in its way, it’s also lacking: There’s no exposure to either sunrise or sunset. The rooms are vaguely claustrophobic. The dining area, should the house ever be completed, would recall the day room at a penitentiary. Auds won’t need a house dropped on them to see the effect that long-term imprisonment would have on one’s aesthetic, but the docu would have benefited from further exploration, via expert testimony, about other psychological effects of solitary confinement and its relation to torture.

Tech credits are fine, and the music of Ken Myhr is quite effective.

Herman's House

Production

A Storyline Entertainment and Time of Day Prods. presentation in association with the Ford Foundation/Just Films. Produced by Lisa Valencia-Svensson, Angad Singh Bhalla. Executive producers, Ed Barreveld, Loring McAlpin. Directed, written by Angad Singh Bhalla.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Iris Ng, Bhalla; editor, Ricardo Acosta; music, Ken Myhr; sound, Jake Springfield; re-recording mixers, Daniel Pellerin, Matthew Chan, Christopher Guglick; animation, Nicolas Brault; associate producer, Acosta. Reviewed at Hot Docs Film Festival, Toronto, May 2, 2012. Running time: 81 MIN.

With

Jackie Sumell, Victory Wallace, Michael Musser, Anita Young, Melissa Farling, Frank Green, Robert King, Jeff Goodale.

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