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Video Review: Concrete Steel & Paint

Sep 02, 2009

by Kate Strong

The documentary tells about the thorny evolution of an art project meant to unite inmates and the community, which started as a mere sketch of an idea in the minds of the inmates of Graterford State Prison.

Dir. Burstein, Cindy and Herza, Tony. The Ford Foundation. 2009.

By law, the inmates at Graterford State Prison must have their identities concealed when they appear in the media. So behind the iron bars of the law, two inmates speak. We see Tom's hands, the glint of his glasses as they dip in and out of the camera frame trained on his stubbly chin, the white shirt peeking out of his maroon jumper, as he expresses a sense of powerlessness in being able to make reparations.

Zafir has a beard, cornrows, a steady voice, and he laughs humorlessly as he tries to convey how far prison life is from life in the unincarcerated world. Tom and Zafir are people, but people obscured even in art by their status as inmates. We never see his eyes as Zafir says, "I don't want my legacy to be that I was just a murderer. I do have something to contribute. I'm still a human being, here I am." These words come over an image of Zafir's fingers, painting the face of a young child with one hand while the other grips the photograph of a girl.

Then we meet Victoria Green and her daughter Altovise Love-Craigshead. They lost Emir, their son and brother, when he was shot several times. As she talks about who Emir was and about recognizing him by his sneakers when she rushed to the hospital after hearing he was in critical condition, Altovise does not hold back tears. Victoria for her part struggles to express the grief she felt and still feels, anger mingling with the sorrow in her voice. The two of them are filmed straight on, their faces disclosing the anguish of their loss. For all that Zafir speaks well, in a victim's eyes remain long-lasting proof of one's person's murderous act, like a crack in the painting.

Yet Jane Golden works under the principle that the presence of beauty can work transformations in people and communities. She is the head of the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia, a project that uses mural-painting as a forum for dialogue and an opportunity for community development. After Jane was asked to come to the prison and speak to the inmates about mural-painting, they asked her if she would help them do their own mural. She agreed, on the condition that it included the community.

 The inmates expressed hope that it would allow everyone to "come together collectively as artists" and provide a way for them to make amends in the community. But when Jane met the community members, some of them representatives for victims and others victims themselves, they were not so unified in their reactions. Some expressed that they did not want to see the offenders or work with them. Others said they had never gotten any closure, and they needed to see that the person who had hurt them was remorseful to begin healing. In the end, all Jane could get people to agree to was be open to dialogue and no more.

 When finally a discussion was facilitated in which community representatives and offenders spoke face-to-face, it was clear that both sides, the victims and the offenders, were affected by the dialogue. As the project continued, the inmates developed a sketch of a mural that would tell their story of transformation and growth within prison walls. But when the victims saw the sketch, they rebuffed it, claiming that it did not tell their story and their pain was being left unrealized. The inmates were demoralized.

 Through conversation, it became clear that there would have to be two murals because one could not encompass all aspects of these tangled experiences. The journey of restoration for the inmates and the journey of healing for the victims ran not the same route but rather parallel ones, with distinct and individual obstacles. Where the inmates saw a common road, the victims clearly asserted that it was not so. This disconnect continued even as the inmates and the victims came together and painted the murals right alongside each other.

 As they talked while holding paint for each other and trying to avoid dripping on one another's clothes, they came to see each other's vulnerability and humanity. In the end, the act of making the mural demonstrated that art involves all people: inmates, victims, advocates, and family members on both sides.

 The documentary ends with thoughts from people passing on their thoughts about the murals. Many of the people point to specific figures - a child lying with eyes closed on the ground, a boy sitting with an expressionless face, a woman crying out with a hole where her heart should be - and relay pieces of their own story as they connect to the art.

 In this community, as one of the inmates aptly observes, art is a language. Zafir himself testifies that "just because I'm living in these walls and I'm living around a lot of concrete, a lot of steel, I still can feel the gentleness that is in the life of others - the flowers, the birds. I can still feel those expressions of sadness, of joy."

 Art, like tragedy, accesses the deepest and most common aspects of humanity. The act of making the mural is not a static act of production and valuation. It is rather an organic growth that involves a person's total being and total story, in all forms of participation, no matter what it may be that fences one in. The documentary is highly honest in its depiction of dialogue at its most difficult.

One can fully understand the hostility some of the victims hold, and how insufficient an apology can be in the face of one person's life being no more. At the same time, the inmates seem thoroughly honest in their expressions of remorse and their desire to make reparations. These two sentiments are clearly in tension and the documentary demonstrates that ably.

But just like the dialogue, the documentary does not stay mired in the challenges. It presses on to the end result, two beautiful works of art, thus proving the enormous potential for healing and creation that art and dialogue can have. The result is hopeful without being saccharine and a fairly balanced exploration of both sides in a dialogue centered around tremendous pain.

Concrete Steel & Paint is available from New Day Films for $250 for universities and $100 for community groups. More information is available from the official Concrete Steel & Paint website.


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