Last week I attended the Toronto theatrical premiere of Herman’s House, a thought-provoking documentary written and directed by Angad Singh Bhalla. This Canadian film tells the story of an artistic collaboration between Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace. Sumell is a multidisciplinary artist from New York. Wallace is a Black Panther from Louisiana who has been in solitary confinement for 40 years.
As a documentary filmmaker myself, I was curious to see what visuals Bhalla and his team would use to depict a missing main character, as we only get to know Wallace through his articulate voice over the phone. (I thought they did this well. Herman’s House is jagged, beautiful, and haunting.)
And because I am concerned about the issue of prisons, I wanted to learn more about solitary confinement and the human rights questions it raises. (Which I did, though maybe not as much as I was hoping.)
In any case, when I went into the cinema, filmmaking technique and human rights were the foremost themes in my mind. But as I left, I was thinking about imagination, art, and activism.
Over the course of the documentary, we see Sumell and Wallace’s unusual collaboration. Wallace imagines every detail of his dream house: a swimming pool, a hot tub bigger than his prison cell, framed portraits of revolutionaries like Harriet Tubman. Sumell designs the house, creates scale models, and eventually works to make it a reality.
Sumell told me in an interview that her initial goal was to “give Herman something else to think about besides the fact that he was in a dungeon.” But she slowly realized that the idea of the house allowed other people to engage with Herman Wallace’s story and the issue of solitary confinement in a way they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – otherwise.
Similarly, Bhalla hopes his film will encourage people to think differently about the issues. He wanted to approach the idea of prison in “a totally fresh way that might allow new audiences . . . to question themselves on both sides (of the issue).”
Sumell says “I wanted to be able to get Herman out through his imagination, but I realized the will of the people can change policy.” She came to see that her project (which grew into an evocative installation piece called The House That Herman Built that was featured in galleries in several countries) could be a powerful advocacy tool.
Artists (including filmmakers) who want to create social change often assume it’s possible to create change through their art. But is it? Art can change attitudes and perceptions. It can educate and inspire. But can it create systemic and structural change in society? Influencing individuals is the first step, but how often does art take us to the second step? Watching Herman’s House made me ask myself these hard questions.
As I watched Sumell’s on-screen struggles, her art and her activism seemed to be pulling her in different directions. She had great success with her installation, but then decided to try to build the house – partly as symbol, partly as community centre. But Sumell and Wallace were uncompromising on the details of the design. I couldn’t help thinking: why not just build a regular community centre? Why must it have a swimming pool – in New Orleans, where in-ground swimming pools are often impractical? Isn’t creating art to change society a roundabout way of getting the job done?
But Sumell doesn’t see her art and her activism as working at cross-purposes: “They don’t cancel each other out. They enrich each other.” As she sees it, if she were to build a practical community centre, “it would be just another community space, which is valuable. But would it be as valuable as Herman’s house?” Sumell doesn’t think so.
In the end, this is all simply about imagination. As Bhalla says, “You’re seeing Herman imagine his house and the audience is trying to imagine what it would be like for him … We need to imagine, as a society, some alternatives.”
Jackie Sumell, Herman Wallace, and Angad Singh Bhalla are all imagining with their art and activism – and with this film are inviting us to do the same. I don’t know if their work can spark the change they seek, but I’m hopeful. I can certainly imagine the possibilities.
Chanda Chevannes is a documentary filmmaker, writer, and member of the Documentary Organization of Canada. Her latest film Living Downstream, about the links between cancer and environment, will be available for purchase on DVD in late 2012.
This article originally appeared on Troy Media.