Portraits of a Prison System in 'The Prison in Twelve Landscapes'

Feb 27, 2016

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year's True/False Film Fest. Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes. 

The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. In her documentary, "The Prison in Twelve Landscapes," Brett Story seeks to redefine both how and where the prison in America is viewed.


The documentary looks at the role prisons play in creating jobs in rural Kentucky, in Los Angeles’ seemingly harmless decision to build a park, and in the Ferguson, Missouri riots. Los Angeles, Ferguson and Kentucky are three of the twelve landscapes that Story looks at in her film. She looks at the different influences that prisons have without showing any prisoners in the film. 

I talked with Story about her new film.

Compall: What was your inspiration for filming it, or specifically for exploring the prison industrial complex?

Story: I’ve been interested in issues around prison for a long time, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about how prison films and images that depict prison issues tend to be so much the same and really not very interesting.  I don’t think they succeed generally in making us think differently about the kinds of work that prisons do or whether they’re necessary in our society.

Compall: You really explore regions all over the country. What was the process of selecting these places?

Story: Often I would just come about the kinds of places that I end up documenting just through my own research or conversations or organizing work that I do and then of course there’s stuff that’s just much more present in the news, and there’s a large scene in the film that focuses on the area surrounding St. Louis and that was of course inspired by what happened to Mike Brown in Ferguson.

Compall: When was this filmed in relation to the Michael Brown shooting?

Story: It was filmed just this past summer, June 2015.   It was always fascinating to me. There’s this national movement going on, Black Lives Matter that’s an incredible outpouring of protest against the racist police and prison systems. These communities, and there’s many of them across the country, that have seen their tax bases go down and are putting the burden of revenue collection on the backs of poor, mostly black and Latino folks who are being stopped by police at every intersection because of a taillight that’s out or because they don’t have their license on them, and then fine these ridiculous fines just so that the municipality can have a means of revenue.

Compall: That’s definitely all interesting, especially in the Ferguson scene.  Part of the scene was unearthing a lot of these institutional issues that plagued the area.  What did you find as you talked to people there?

Story: I found incredible frustration.  Everybody knows what’s going on.  Everybody I talked to on the street or in the line outside the scene that just takes place in a line going up to a municipal court.  People aren’t resigned to it. It’s their everyday lives having to schlep to this or that court on a Wednesday night to pay $300 because they may or may not have not put on their turn signal.  These are people that are working minimum wage jobs that don’t have $300, $400 to pay the city every two weeks because of things like that. I wasn’t there to tell people, “Oh this is my interpretation of things.” People were honest with me about the racism in their midst and the systemic quality and nature of that.