HOT DOC 2012 (Toronto)
Directed by Angad Singh Bhalla
Tickets are still available for May 6, 9:30pm: CLICK HERE
Herman’s House is about a Black Panther named Herman Wallace imprisioned in Angola, Louisiana for killing a jail guard, although there is no concrete evidence pointing to his guilt. But it’s also equally about Jackie Summel, the woman who wants to build his ideal house for him. We see separate segments of her rabbit hole from being an abused child to local beauty queen to pro-choice activist to her current self as an activist/artist/nieghbourhood mother/debtor who is spreading word about Wallace’s unjust imprisonment as well as about solitary confinement, a practice she deems as draconian and cruel yet accepted by people around her.
By the way, solitary confinement isn’t just a one-off thing where a man is sent to a black box for a few days – Wallace is in his cell for the duration of his term. Summel’s first art installation is a physical manifestation of her therapeutic idea to let him, verbally and through letters, imagine his ideal house and forget his present living quarters. It also has a piece made of wooden materials showing his cell and thus the inhuman practice of putting people in cells that small. The director, Anghad Singh Bhalla, also interviews prison architects – what, people specialize in that? – who agree that spaces like Angola inhabit are archaic.
A scene in the movie lets Summel meet one of those people who thinks that solitary is fine, just like there are other scenes where she talks to people in the South about Wallace and getting the land for his house. One woman tells her that unlike her New York way of thinking, the realtor speaks for other Southerners and that she doesn’t care about living next to an ex-convict and that she has guns in her house to protect herself. It’s a bittersweet comic relief in a gloomy-toned doc, unlike a scene when a man who knew Wallace and is now a contractor working with Summel. He tells the director that she’ll be perceived as a white woman who doesn’t belong near Angola and that she should leave the Panther struggle, a movement ambivalently received by the black people featured in the movie.
The doc weaves stories that seem too different and relates them to Wallace. One of the minor subjects is a white man imprisoned longer than he should have been, telling the camera that Wallace has given him back his compassion. His mother agrees, wondering how Wallace, changing her almost jaded son, can serve his society by being on the outside. Wallace confirms this positive word of mouth through recorded phone conversations between himself and Bhalla/Summel, an eloquent voice telling both of them to have a better outlook and to persevere. This audio is accompanied by animation of his early life and ideal house.
This movie shows that perseverance is an underrated virtue, as evinced by my initial and future reactions to it. At first I misunderstood Wallace and Summel’s struggle, that as Wallace admits, there are possibilities that both might be seen as taking advantage of each other, Wallace furthering his cause through her and she upping her profile as an artist through his struggle. It also seems like masochism on Summel’s part of putting herself in debt for a lost cause. But then I realized that it would have been bourgeois and callous of her to give up after her installation tour. This movie, therefore, shows activism in its purest form and should be seen in that respect.