More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, up from 300,000 people 40 years ago, but not only are stats like those absent from Brett Story’s inspired documentary, “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes,” the actual prisons are missing as well. Rather than examine the prison-industrial complex from the inside, Story crisscrosses the country and attacks the issue from varied and surprising angles — some as direct as a Kentucky mining town kept afloat by a federal pen, others as roundabout as a Los Angeles playground designed to ward off registered sex offenders. While the doc eventually tilts into righteous anger, its ingenious conceit subtly and artfully registers how mass incarceration affects society in ways the public can’t always see. The conceptual hook may confine its appeal, but “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” is poised to tunnel into more adventurous festivals and outlets after its True/False premiere.
Composed of 12 vignettes, the film adopts a prismatic approach that may sound like Story’s twist on “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” which hails from her native Canada, but she comes at the material from a different vantage. Both films illuminate a complex subject through a series of offbeat perspectives, but “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” has a consistent formal beauty that sets it apart from the earlier film’s deliberate mish-mash of textures. With only seven-and-a-half minutes, on average, to make an impression, Story and her d.p., Maya Bankovic, make concise statements through carefully composed and often dreamily stylized images.
Announcing its eccentricities from the start, the doc opens in Washington Square Park, where a street chess master talks about how he advanced his game in the clink, but that’s the only occasion when the system is made to seem productive. From there, Story visits Eastern Kentucky, where a town ravaged by the coal industry now gets employment opportunities from a federal prison nestled in the mountains. In the Bronx, a former inmate has made a business out of preparing care packages that work around the byzantine restrictions on what items are allowed to pass through the gates. The film gets quirkier, too, in places like Detroit, where the camera gets a guided tour through Quicken Loans’ slick corporate campus downtown, which resembles the gentrified police state dreamed up by the evil OmniCorp in “Robocop.” And it’s equally unexpected to hear the disembodied voice of a female inmate who fights forest fires in Marin County, Calif., but won’t likely get the same opportunity under parole.
The placement of each segment has more to do with rhythm than geographical order, but “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” reserves its most damning footage for the last few, which re-enforce the idea of the prison system as a racist, grossly unjust tool of black oppression. Story returns to the street where Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Mo., but puts that incident — and the Black Lives Matter movement — in the context of St. Louis County, where poor African-Americans are constantly fending off police harassment and steep municipal fines. One woman tells a particularly harrowing tale of serving a 15-day sentence around an unpaid garbage-lid fine.
Through its vivid assortment of stories and locales, “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” suggests the prison-industrial complex as an ever-growing, multi-tentacled beast that touches endless aspects of American life. There are forms of incarceration on both sides of the wall — a willingness to accept the limits of prison culture, even when there are no bars. Story has made a potent political film without having to spray viewers with a fusillade of alarming numbers to back it up. She trusts viewers to intuit their way through fascinating anecdotes and detours that gain a cumulative power, one that data alone cannot possibly express.