×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Herman’s House

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?

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

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.

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

More Scene

  • DF-10956_R – Gwilym Lee (Brian May) and

    'Bohemian Rhapsody' Producer Confirms Bryan Singer's Reason for Leaving, Says 'No One' Was Attached to Play Mercury

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” producer Graham King provided insight into some of the events surrounding the Golden Globe-winning film Saturday at the Producers Guild Awards Nominees Breakfast, including director Bryan Singer’s departure from the film partway through production. “It’s an unfortunate situation, with like 16, 17 days to go and Bryan Singer just had some issues, his [...]

  • Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce

    Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce GLAAD Media Award Nominations

    Mj Rodriguez and Nico Santos are set to announce the nominees for the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards. The “Pose” star and “Crazy Rich Asians” funny man will make the announcement during a live-stream hosted by AT&T and from the AT&T Hello Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25. More Reviews Concert Review: Lady [...]

  • Emile Hirsch, Matt SmileyEmile Hirsch hosts

    Emile Hirsch Hosts Smiley Face Art Opening at Mondrian Hotel

    Despite the rain on Wednesday night in West Hollywood, there were plenty of smiles inside the Mondrian hotel thanks to artist Matt Smiley‘s Refresh exhibition. Not only is Smiley his real last name, but several of his paintings and other pieces in the exhibit feature smiley faces. More Reviews Concert Review: Lady Gaga Outdoes Her [...]

  • Randall Park, left, and Constance Wu

    Constance Wu Wants Her 'Fresh Off the Boat' Co-Star Randall Park to Host the Oscars

    While the Academy may have decided to go hostless for this year’s Oscars, that doesn’t mean the rest of Hollywood has stopped thinking about who would be a good choice for the emceeing gig. Former host Whoopi Goldberg recently suggested Ken Jeong. More Reviews Concert Review: Lady Gaga Outdoes Her Other Vegas Show With Masterful [...]

  • 'Schitt's Creek' Stars Reveal Dream Guest

    'Schitt's Creek' Cast Reveals Dream Guest Stars: Oprah, Beyonce and ...

    “Schitt’s Creek” has big dreams. Dan Levy, who stars as David on the series, says his wish list of guest stars includes Oprah, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Gwyneth Paltrow. “All for different reasons, none of whom we’ll get,” he cracked at the Critics’ Choice Awards. More Reviews Concert Review: Lady Gaga Outdoes Her Other Vegas [...]

  • Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bundchen

    Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen to Be Honored at UCLA Science Gala

    Science can be very glamorous. It certainly will be during Oscar week on Feb. 21 when the UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability (IoES) honors Barbra Streisand and Gisele Bündchen for environmental activism at its annual Hollywood for Science Gala. More Reviews Concert Review: Lady Gaga Outdoes Her Other Vegas Show With Masterful 'Jazz [...]

  • Don Cheadle and Andrew Rannells Black

    Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells Talk Snorting 'Coke' on 'Black Monday'

    “Black Monday” show creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahen divulged an intriguing detail to come later in the first season of the new Showtime comedy at its world premiere, held at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Monday night in Los Angeles. “The fourth or fifth episode opens with a sexual harassment seminar, which very well [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content