Seasoned director Vadim Jean may be best known for his recent adaptations of Terry Pratchett's Hogfather and The Colour of Magic, but the Chaplin Award winner has put the fantastical world away for his latest venture, to tell the story of the 'Angola 3'. Jean’s new documentary In the land of the Free reveals the horrendous true story of Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King, who between them have served just under a century in solitary confinement at the Angola state prison in Louisiana. LWLies caught up with Jean recently to discuss his new film, the Angola 3 and changing the American prison system.
LWLies: What was your initial reaction to the news of the Angola 3’s inhumane incarceration?
Jean: Well, I think naturally the first reaction was disbelief that this could be happening in America today. I knew I had to take a closer look and when I read the cases, considered the evidence, listened to my emotional reaction, I knew I had to get involved.
So When did this journey begin that took you over to Louisiana to make the film?
I’d heard Robert King speak at Anita Roddick’s memorial service in 2007. He spoke with remarkable dignity and charisma and played telephone messages from Herman and Albert who were in solitary. Their tributes to her were so moving that I knew, as Anita would always say, that I had to 'just do something'. That something would be to make this film.
So after you made the decision to make the film, what happened next?
I just had to work out the how really. I always doubted we would be allowed to film Herman and Albert in prison – although we asked the prison authorities several times for permission – so working out how to make a documentary about these men without filmed interviews with two of them was the biggest challenge.
The film gives the impression that you encountered very little resistance while filming, was it really that straightforward?
Well, we spoke to several ex-inmates of Angola, all of whom were willing to speak about their experiences, which was great. The Louisiana department of corrections wouldn't allow us to film at Angola though, apart for one hour outside the front gates. In the end I had to grab images filming in other Louisiana prisons to get more abstract images like cell doors closing, keys in locks, razor wire: all the emblematic images of incarceration. It was very strange though, in the state with the highest per capita incarceration in the world, I couldn't get into a prison for love nor money.
Was it difficult gaining access to any of the sensitive material or testimonies? Especially given the question marks surrounding most of the cases.
Not really, no. Most of the these are actually in the public domain from the court cases, so we were able to get access to them relatively easily. In particular, the court transcripts from the various trials, which contained most of the extraordinary facts of the case.
Have any of the Angola 3 seen the film yet? And if so what was their reaction?
Robert king, who was freed in 2001, and is in the film, has seen it. He told me he thinks it's pretty cool but unfortunately, the Angola prison authorities will never allow Herman and Albert to see it while they are still inside.
Between running around prisons and interview ex inmates, how exactly did you collar Samuel L Jackson for the narration?
Well I saw an interview on UKTV where he mentioned that he had been a black panther and as soon as I saw that I wanted to try to get him to see the film. Sam and me also happened to be at the same agency in America and with the help of a wonderful actor/producer/activist called Mike Farrell, who put in a word on our behalf, we got a copy of the film to him. Remarkably, within 24 hours of watching the film Sam said he’d do it.
You’ve dabbled in documentary for TV before with Working the Thames, but your better known for your dramas, such as One More Kiss, and various Terry Pratchett adaptations. Did you find this film was a real test of your skills.
At the end of the day, filmmaking is story telling and interestingly, with In the Land of the Free, I found I had to use all my background in story structure from drama to help distil a very complicated case into a compelling narrative. The hardest thing was how to make the legal aspects of the case and the many characters accessible to an audience with no prior knowledge of the story. At the same time, most of it is down to the brilliant editor, David Charap, who has made countless documentaries, and who made the most remarkable contribution to the film. Mike Fox is also probably the best documentary cameraman in the country, so with a team like that, I had a lot of support.
Before you began filming did you intend to make a comment on the whole American legal system and not just the treatment of the Angola 3; Or was this a coincidence with the more you delved into the story?
Well when we started this I had no idea that the practice of using solitary had begun to spread across the whole of the US prison system to the extent that it has. According to some sources there may be up to 25,000 prisoners in the US in these kind of conditions. I think I also realised that the lack of separation between politics and high legal office in the US justice system is a major problem. Judges and attorney generals for example, are elected and so too often have to appeal to some of the more base of human instincts in their constituents to get elected. Prosecutors can't be seen to have got it wrong in case they don't get elected. It's almost as if they'd rather keep innocent people in prison in case they look weak for admitting a mistake and appearing 'soft' on a possible 'criminal' than see justice, in fear of losing votes. It’s pretty shocking.
The film will obviously raise awareness to the Angola 3’s cause, but what do hope the film will achieve anything on the grander scheme of things?
Well, my great wish is that one day, and soon I hope, Herman and Albert will be able to see the film because they have been freed. If the film can play its part, even the smallest part in achieving that, then I can rest happy. I suppose if there are any wider implications it will be because when these remarkable men are free they will be the most incredible force for change in the US justice system; as Robert King says in the film they won't want anyone else to go through what they've been through. I think that’s what’s most important.