Gilbey on Film: cry freedom

From the Human Rights Watch film festival: the terrible fate of the Angola 3.

The 14th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival runs until Friday, and there are tickets still available for the European premiere this week of one of the festival's highlights. In the Land of the Free... is a chastening documentary about Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King, known collectively as the Angola 3 after the prison where they have spent, between them, almost a century in solitary confinement for a murder that all evidence suggests they did not commit.

The victim was a prison guard, Brent Miller, who in 1972 was stabbed 32 times inside Angola, the Louisiana state penitentiary. Wallace and Woodfox were already in prison for other offences, and were placed at the scene of the crime by an eyewitness who later turned out to be not only legally blind and beset by mental problems, but to have been promised by the authorities a weekly carton of cigarettes, as well as early release, in exchange for testifying. The testimony of that witness became the lynchpin of the prosecution case; for those determined to prolong the men's incarceration, it still is.

But if Wallace and Woodfox did not kill Brent Miller, why were they fingered for the crime? The probable answer lies in their allegiance to a prison arm of the Black Panther Party established shortly before the murder. So comprehensive was the campaign to crush the Panthers that Miller's murder was declared a conspiracy. That's where Robert King came in -- literally. Despite having been serving time in another prison 150 miles away, King was brought to Angola and consigned to solitary along with Wallace and Woodfox. Well, he was an active member of the Black Panthers, and must therefore have been instrumental in the conspiracy. During his first year at Angola, he was falsely convicted of murdering another prisoner. At his trial, where the jury was exclusively white and the witnesses wildly unreliable, King's mouth was sealed with duct tape.

If there is a point at which a typical viewer of In the Land of the Free... will cry out, "What next?" then that is probably it. The film can only be watched in a state of horrified incredulity. King was released in 2001, but Wallace and Woodfox are currently approaching their 38th consecutive year of being held in solitary at Louisiana state penitentiary. I say consecutive, but as the film points out, there have been occasional interruptions in the prisoners' routine. These breaks, which take place in an area of the prison known as "the dungeon", tend to discredit the idea that a change is as good as a rest.

It's fortunate that Wallace and Woodfox have some effective cheerleaders on their side. One was the late Anita Roddick, who campaigned for the men's release; the film is dedicated to her. Another is King, who has managed against the odds to hold on to his sanity. The director Vadim Jean should now be included alongside the campaigners. His film is blunt, lucid and angry. Celebrity narration is present and correct -- in this case, Samuel L Jackson -- but the most potent charge comes from two other men heard in voice only: Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, speaking to us down an imperfect prison phone-line.

"In the Land of the Free..." screens in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival on 24 and 25 March, followed by panel discussions, before going on release on 26 March. Details here.

Ryan Gilbey blogs every Tuesday for Cultural Capital. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear