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How ‘The Prison in Twelve Landscapes’ Rethinks Mass Incarceration

The documentary tackles the social, racial and economic repercussions of imprisonment — without ever taking us inside a jail cell

Prisons — and the long arms of the criminal justice system — are all around us, even though we hardly notice. That’s the compelling argument made by The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, a terrific, provocative documentary opening in New York today.

In the film, director Brett Story presents a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes (or “landscapes”) that take place around the country: New York, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Maryland, California. We meet many different types of people — chess players, entrepreneurs, protesters, PR reps, firefighters — but what we never see (with one striking exception) is a prison. Instead, in each of these 12 scenes, Story reveals how incarceration affects these individuals. For example, a Washington Square Park chess player learned his craft in prison, instilling in him a philosophy that’s carried him through the rest of his life. As for the entrepreneur, he started a business that sells prison-approved products to families that want to ship items safely to their locked-up loved ones.

Story’s point is subtle but striking: Even if prisons are mostly out of sight — despite the fact that we jail more of our citizens than any other nation — they affect all of us. Through its poetic mosaic, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes forces us to confront the reality of incarceration, causing us to see the racism and economic inequality inherent in the system, which extend far beyond prison walls to many aspects of modern life.

Story, who splits her time between Toronto and New York, got her Ph.D. in geography, which isn’t the normal career path for a documentary filmmaker. But as she explained to MEL in April, her challenging, contemplative work is focused on the ways that geography and landscapes impact us in invisible ways. “Geography has a really incredible radical tradition and political tradition that I’m drawn to,” she says.