Monday, August 18, 2008

John Ewing III, "Life After Death" (2007).

It's rare that I'll take the chance on a DVD without reading a single consumer review beforehand. But there was something about the packaging of Life After Death that inspired me to overlook the complete absence of critical attention. It didn't hurt that I was able to buy a copy of it from an Amazon independent seller for about $5 + shipping and handling. I probably wouldn't have chosen to order it alone, but since I was basically indulging myself in a mass purchase, I figured I'd assume the minimal risk. Now after watching it, I can't say that I'm overwhelmingly satisfied. While it wouldn't be entirely correct that it was a waste of time, I will admit to being misled into believing it would be something that it wasn't.

Basically what John Ewing III delivered with this movie is a series of interviews with black men and women who have spent significant time in the nation's prison system. Before I get into the content, I feel it necessary to comment on its form. This is one of the most poorly produced documentaries I have ever seen. It appears that very little money was wasted on things like sound mastering or professional editing. The former is especially problematic since many of the interviews are delivered in a garbled, heavily slang-inflected manner. If you are used to the cadences of urban inner-city accents, then you may have an easier time with this. Even so, the volume levels vary wildly throughout the film.

As far as editing is concerned, what we have here is a series of full frontal segments with former prisoners. All throughout there is an undercurrent of gangster rap that can be subtly distracting. To top it off, some of the footage is simply repeated or interjected in a seemingly random fashion. At other points interviewees are cut off in mid-sentence, or seem to be responding to questions that are only barely audible or consistent with the delivered answers. In between clips, we get to see shots of anonymous prison interiors, with no hint of where they were taken or who took them. I suppose they were included to provide the proper Mise-en-scène. At any rate they are only partially effective.

Yet all this criticism is tempered by the authenticity of Life After Death. Many of the stories related by the ex-cons are both compelling and effective. For the most part the inquiries made elicit frank and descriptive talk of life inside our penal institutions. Much of it will probably come as no surprise to students of the subject. But for those with only minimal exposure to information about our nation's prisons, this should be an enlightening viewing experience. Obviously the viewer should keep in mind that the participants are capable of exaggeration. This indeed is endemic among the incarcerated population. However I'd be shocked if the spirit of their accounts wasn't true, especially given the nature of some of their admissions.

Ultimately I'm not sorry I ordered this. There are multiple opportunities for folks to view or read objective accounts by so-called "experts" presenting outsider views of prison life. On the other hand, it's relatively rare to encounter unvarnished commentary by those who have 'walked the walk'. Even firsthand memoirs are often delivered by non-traditional inmates, who are blessed with ample skills of articulation. The men and women in Life After Death seem generally representative of the African-American population currently housed in federal and state prisons. They are a cross-section of people caught up in a depersonalized and controversial system. I'm glad someone made a document of their voices.

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