Seen as part of the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival (Online Screening)
The Prison Industrial Complex is a topic that’s been touched on by many truly fascinating documentaries for a reason, it’s an obscenely messed up system that is often used capriciously against POC and queer people who are just trying to live their lives. In the US it’s particularly awful, they have the largest number of prisoners on the planet and it’s disproportionately people of colour (largely black and Latin men).
Any documentary on the subject, by virtue of the topic itself, is going to be fascinating and when you combine a documentary about the prison industrial complex with a documentary about the rise of house music you get something like Bring Down The Walls, which is fascinating although a little disjointed.
Bring Down The Walls uses a series of group talks among several groups, including protestors and prisoners, discussing how the prison industrial complex has harmed their communities, the way different groups are treated by the cops and what effect prison has. The talks are fascinating, presenting ideas you might not think about like “how does a prisoner adapt to the change in technology while they’re incarcerated?” or “Is the parole system fair?” and exploring them in great depth… and then it’s time for some music.
The portions of Bring Down The Walls that’re heavier on the house music are the parts I personally had a problem with, largely because it felt like they were two related topics that had no connective tissue being forced together to create a full feature film… It ended up feeling a little bit like the house music sequences were the audiences reward for making it through the difficult discussions around the prison system. They’re certainly great sequences and give another insight into this community, I just wonder what the connective tissue is.
Where Bring Down The Walls shines is when they just let the prisoners talk and explain the problems in the system first hand, there are so many major problems that we need to look into that this film only gets a chance to scratch the surface of each one. In a way, it’s a conversation starter film that gives you a little bit of info to get you going to have larger conversations later on about things like how different communities are policed different, or if we should be paying prison workers more than 15 cents an hour.
And then we’re back to the house music, some of which is actually done by former prisoners who write the lyrics and perform the songs. It’s nice seeing them using this artform as an escape, and also learning a little bit about the roots of house music (very little, but still it’s there). The soundtrack of Bring Down The Walls is genuinely incredible and you can’t help but catch yourself dancing along to the tunes blaring from the screen.
And then, let’s talk about prison reform vs abolishment.
Notice how it feels like I’m going back and forth between two wildly different topics, one being rich in content but no detail and the other just kind of being there? That’s what Bring Down The Walls ends up feeling like. It’s a genuinely great and fascinating documentary, I really liked it, but I also can’t deny that it feels like there’s a lot more to both topics and either the film needed an extra half hour to really explore them or it needed to be two documentaries to really work.
Still, what’s here is an eye catching film with an electrifying score and a powerful series of messages that’s worth a look… maybe several looks so you can catch everything that’s going on since there’s a lot there to deal with.