Inspired by his work with inmates at the notorious high-security prison Sing Sing, in 2018 British artist Phil Collins collaborated in a highly unusual project which sought to address the ills of the criminal justice system in the US. For one month, Bring Down the Walls turned a former firehouse in downtown New York into a civic space dedicated to social justice and prison abolition. By day it was a ‘school’ offering talks and workshops, by night the venue for some amazing dance parties.
Collins’ film charts that extraordinary enterprise with a similarly hybrid form and spirit. It could be viewed as part concert movie, part campaigning documentary; in Collins’ mind, certainly, the music and the politics go hand in hand. The result is fascinating and foot-stomping, provocative and moving, multi-layered and extremely effective.
Arriving in Belfast after appearances at a number of festivals in 2020 and 2021, including CHP:Dox and Sheffield Doc/Fest, the film thoroughly merits its continued play; in fact, given its correspondence with the Black Lives Matter movement, not to mention the craving of many to return to nightclubs and dance floors – who would derive much vicarious pleasure here – theatrical opportunities should not be out of the question.
Collins efficiently dispenses with his exposition early. An opening, disarmingly mellow voice-over outlines the concept of the ‘prison industrial complex’, which aligns the growth of prison building and incarceration in the US since the 1980s (with two million people currently in jail) with political ideology and corporate profit. It also identifies race and class as the primary factors in determining the prison population.
An answer machine recording then informs callers of the schedule at the firehouse, symbolically located in New York’s court district, with two key pieces of information: the day-time events are led by people whose lives have been “directly impacted by the prison system”; and the dancefloor is considered “a space of connection, transformation, personal and collective liberation”. The music, specifically, is House.
And that’s that. No more voiceover, and no captions to identify the speakers, DJs and performers on screen (who are listed in the closing credits). It’s an unconventional approach, but it contributes to the immediacy of the film, as Collins and his editor Stefan Ramirez Perez smoothly move back and forth between Sing Sing and New York, conversation and dance.
The prison scenes, shot in 2015, involve inmates speaking with each other about their protracted incarceration, the things they’ve missed in society (Wi-Fi and iPads are strange notions to many) and their own views about the iniquities of the justice system. At the firehouse, ex-cons, their families and activists share their experiences and observations with the public. The editing skilfully hones in on heartrending anecdotes, including numerous stories of wrongful arrest and conviction, sentences staggeringly out of keeping with a crime, and the particular vulnerability of LGBT people in prison.
An academic notes that Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Declaration planted a seed for the risible notion that it’s good business to convict African-Americans – stating that there should be no slavery “except as punishment for a crime”. Fast forward to unlawful assembly laws that hoover up African American and Hispanic people for essentially chatting to each other in the street.
Such material offers sobering food for thought. Meanwhile, the film’s instruction extends to a history of House, whose motivational anthems touched the same marginalised communities – gay, black, Latino – being targeted by the law, offering “a salve for loved ones left behind”.
House was also a shared, formative experience for Collins and the Sing Sing inmates, hence the director’s many stirring sorties to the dance floor – vibrant, immersive sequences, each filmed in a subtly different way (one using an evocative montage of stills), capturing a powerful, joyous sense of community largely absent from the mainstream media.
This review first appeared in Screen Daily