As the First Person Festival draws near, First Person RAW artists will be interviewing other Festival artists working in similar fields for the First Person blog. We’ve paired funny ladies Robin Gelfenbien and Elna Baker and actors Justin Jain and Dan Hoyle. For our first interview, Heather Metcalfe from Voices of Afghanistan interviews Heather Ross, director of Girls on the Wall.
Both Heather M. and Heather R. allow the stories of marginalized and forgotten women to be heard. In June 2009, Heather M. traveled to Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan where she photographed and interviewed the men, women, and children whom she met along her travels. Heather’s photographs and film depicting the strength, beauty, and struggles of the women of Afghanistan make up the film and book titled Voices of Afghanistan, which she’ll be presenting at the First Person Festival. Heather Ross is the director ofGirls on the Wall, adocumentary about the young women of an Illinois juvenile correctional facility as they tell their stories through the creation of a musical about their own lives. (watch the trailer below)
Girls on the Wall
Heather M: Why is storytelling important? Heather R: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I grew up as an escapist and always liked to lose myself in other people’s stories. Film is a powerful medium in terms of getting absorbed and losing yourself to the story, and in a documentary, you can lose your self in a real person’s story. That’s an especially powerful thing, particularly when the subject or the character is nothing like you. And I really like that moment of realization for a viewer when they realize their story is similar to the one in the film, especially when they had not expected that. Stories help people, at least briefly, come up with a new way of looking at the world.
In my film Girls On the Wall, the theme of storytelling is central. Ms. P, the director of the program, gets the girls to realize that they can’t change their life, their story, until they understand their story.
What drew you to making a movie about teenage girls who were incarcerated?
I didn’t have a particular interest in teenage girls living in prison originally. I wanted to do something about teenage girls and their stories, but wasn’t sure what exactly. However, I then heard a story on the radio about about a musical program for teenage girls, who were in prison and was instantly interested. The fact the girls were doing a musical made it funny and creative, yet the girls were in prison. So it had important stories, voices you haven’t heard before and a crazy way of bringing an audience into that world.
Based upon your work on the film, are there any policies you would like to see changed regarding juvenile delinquents and the criminal justice system?
My focus was entirely on the stories of the girls. Nothing in the film has anything to do with the policies. However, through hearing the girl’s stories, you can form your own opinions about whether the system is working for them. I personally think it did, many of the girls lived better in jail than they did outside, which in itself is pretty tragic. In the facility, people cared about them, they were in school, they were fed, they weren’t getting hurt. Then again, you do see how kids get locked up for something very minor, and then it snowballs into a pattern of getting in and out of jail.
Overall, the film is not a social justice piece. There is no agenda other than telling the fascinating stories of these girls.
What will your presentation at First Person Arts Festival entail?
My film Girls on the Wall will be shown in the Prison 101 program, together with a live performance of stories written by men in a local prison. It should be interesting for people to see live theatre written by men who are in prison and compare to the lives of teenage girls in prison. We’ll also have a Q&A afterward.
What do you think viewers will be surprised from Girls On the Wall?
Viewers are typically surprised by how smart, funny and charismatic the girls are. That is huge and important to me. Girls On the Wall is not a sob story about bad kids who made bad choices. It is about kids who clearly have a lot of potential. And if they are tough, you love them more, because you can see the pain, which the toughness is covering up. Viewers typically are surprised by how much they love and care for the girls, as well as how much they root for them.
I’m really excited for Girls On the Wall to be shown in the First Person Festival. It has been shown at theaters and film festivals, but the festival is a really ideal place to show the film because that is what the movie is about, the power of the girls telling their story. The film will demonstrate how powerful it is for people to tell their story for the first time. I hope viewers will watch Girls On the Wall, have fun and be moved.
From Afghanistan to our own back yard, come learn about the strength and beauty that exists within these two extraordinary groups of women. Heather Ross will be doing a Q&A after the premier of Girls on the Wall Saturday, November 13 at 2:00 PM, as part of the three-part program, Prison 101. Click here for more information and to buy tickets. Heather Metcalfe will be presenting Voices of Afghanistan on Saturday, November 13 at 6:30 PM. Click here for more information and to buy tickets. Both events take place at the Painted Bride Art Center.