It’s hard to make a house without materials, and even harder if you are in solitary confinement in a US prison and have been there for forty years. What is required in that situation is imagination and perseverance, mixed with a healthy dose of love and anger — all of which the wonderful new documentary Herman’s House deliver.
Directed by Angad Singh Bhalla and produced by the keepin-it-real folks at Storyline, Herman’s House was deservedly very well-received at Hot Docs this year. The film follows New York artist Jackie Sumell who forges a relationship with former Black Panther Herman Wallace, who is locked up at Louisiana’s Angola prison since accused and convicted (with little evidence) of killing a security guard in 1972. Sumell becomes close with Wallace and provoked by her passion for social justice and art, eventually asks and Wallace what kind of house he would live in, setting on a journey to implement his dreams.
Anyone expecting a biography of Wallace, or even much in the way of images of the unjustly kept man will be disappointed, for that is not this film. We only learn small tidbits about his case and history and we really never see him.
That’s not to say he isn’t a driving force in the film — his voice, recorded from telephone conversations, is a steady and sure keel that not only keeps Sumell focused on her impossible mission to build Herman’s house in New Orleans (which is intended to be a community centre for youth), but keeps the whole film centred and focused as well.
Conceptually inventive, poetic and original, Herman’s House achieves a great feat in constructing a compelling narrative about a man we never meet and goals that aren’t quite reached. But looking closer at the film, as one is want to do with this slow-paced and extremely thoughtful doc, one realizes that the film isn’t just about Wallace, it’s about the relationship between him and Sumell and its about the profound sense of social justice and creativity that give meaning to and shape that relationship.
Sumell’s dedication to and at times seemingly obsessive approach to Wallace’s imaginative wishes is difficult to fully understand, but Bhalla’s film gently pulls us along, revealing just the right moments so that this complicated union unfolds much the way a house is first conceived in the mind, plans are drawn, the foundation poured, and the walls and roof built.
There are many houses being built here, and much like a Matryoshka doll, they fit inside eachother, beginning with the house in Wallace’s imagination, to the houses of Sumell, to the house that is the film, and to the houses that all of us imagine for ourselves and for those suffering injustice in the world. In the end, none can contain this unique and moving story, and we are left with our own imaginations, completely activated by this magnificent film.