Cast: Jim Carlson, Spoon Jackson, Rick Misener, Charles “Big C” Owens, Fred Schroeder, Ernest “E-Clipse” Shoemacher, Marty Williams
It’s not often we see prison life outside of sensationalized, over-dramatized, fictional accounts from film and television shows. For whatever reason – perhaps it satisfies our own animalistic desires while reaffirming our belief in our own self-righteousness – there’s an avid market for these depictions and entertainment media is all too happy to oblige their consumers. And often times, when we do see realistic accounts, they center around a single, sensationalized figure. These representations distort and over-simplify prison life, the people who live within the prison walls, and a system that perpetuates the criminal behavior that is the reason for its own existence. At Night I Fly is a documentary that quietly explores the everyday lives of men in prison – the plodding mundanity punctuated by sudden violence, the inherent racism and self-segregation, the struggle to count among the uncounted – and the arts program that changed how a handful of people see themselves and the world in which they are forced to live.
One of the most striking things about At Night I Fly is the honesty of the prisoners who are interviewed. It is nearly impossible for the average person to imagine what it might be like to be incarcerated, and part of what these interviews do is to bring to light exactly how hopeless and demoralizing the loss of freedom is. Many of these prisoners have no hope of release and have to come to terms with the permanent loss of their freedom. What these interviews also do is explain the system of violence in prison, how one is expected to join a certain group or do a certain thing, or else risk bringing violence upon oneself.
The prisoners often segregate themselves into groups by race or gang, never associating with people outside their group – which seems like a strange thing to do when one’s entire community lives within the same walls and are one’s only source of socialization. But the prisoners are very clear on this – it’s what they are expected to do, and the one thing you don’t want to do in prison is to draw attention to yourself by doing the unexpected. But the prisoners interviewed are also very clear on another point – they want it to change. And that’s where the art program comes in.
The Arts in Correction Program was established in 1977 and offered a place in the prisons where prisoners could express themselves through the arts and form connections with their fellow inmates. It is one of the only places during the course of the film where races and gangs mix freely. Not only do they interact and communicate with each other, but they enjoy each other’s company and the sharing of each other’s art. They share poems and music, they can joke with each other while having a serious discussion.
And what is doubly striking is how very talented many of these prisoners are. There is one prisoner who shares a humorous song, presented with great personality, dedication, and joy. And while the camera focuses on the performer, the laughter and encouragement of his fellow prisoners can be plainly heard in the background. While many prisoners found great hope and redemption in the arts program, and indeed, rehabilitation in a system that offered none, the Arts in Correction Program was shut down in 2010 due to budget cuts.
Director Michel Wenzer has an eye for finding affecting images in the totally mundane. Shots of corridors, chain link fences, a prisoner feeding pigeons, aerial views of the prison, all express a kind of tragic dreariness that the prisoners all feel. The place where they live isn’t pleasant and isn’t pretty, and it isn’t meant to be. Wenzer very correctly lets the film and the prisoners speak for themselves.
The non-judgmental, observational style of filmmaking allows the prisoners to express themselves freely and catches compelling moments and moving interactions from their everyday lives. We often either too easily dehumanize prisoners or glamorize them, and both lead to us thinking of criminals as something other than human – an unrelatable other that has no connection to our lives and nothing in common with conventional society. What we find is that they experience joy and sadness, love their friends, create art, sing, eat, sleep, and dream of a better life. As Marty (one of the prisoners) says, they are us, and we are them – and if there’s hope for the people in prison, there’s hope for us out here.