Image from the documentary Concrete, Steel & Paint

What happens when the documentary ends but the issue festers?

This question rang in my head while noshing on radishes and beer at the Manhattan headquarters of the Ford Foundation, which hosted a recent screening of the very compelling and subtly complex Concrete, Steel & Paint. The film is about a group of men at Graterford, a Pennsylvania state prison, who join with a seemingly opposed group — victims of their crimes — to heal and possibly build understanding by painting a mural together. The film raises challenging questions about crime, justice and reconciliation as it follows an arts teacher who organizes the inmates of the prison.

It’s a particularly noble cause, trying to unite these two different parties, and what’s most striking about the film is that, well, it doesn’t have a Kumbaya ending — not in my mind, at least. (I don’t want to give away any spoilers so if you want to see the film untainted, please skip below the film’s trailer for information about an upcoming screening in NYC.)

When the prisoners create a sketch for the shared mural, the victims of crime don’t feel adequately represented. So what do they end up doing? They make two different murals. The film’s subjects accept a resolution that involves putting the murals up near each other, but I felt myself wanting some answers. Did they really work hard to make one common mural? I’m not sure, and I don’t know if that’s a fault of the film or me having a hard time digesting their tough reality.

And then there’s another fissure. When the prisoners work side by side with the victims and the victims’ families, it’s clearly an emotional and important moment between the two — it’s significant that it happens at all. But there’s a painful disconnect. The prisoners keep referring to themselves as victims, to which the victims take umbrage. This gap is left lingering, without resolution.

What made these questions all the more resonant for me was the Q&A time after the screening. It was an engaging, generally uplifting talk, which reinforced the positive impact of the film and demonstrated that the film could be used as an educational and restorative tool. But time was running short, and the moderator said he had time for just one more question or comment. An elderly man raised his hand, and he spoke haltingly and with passion. He said, and I’ll paraphrase here: “I was a prisoner and I was a victim. I was a victim of corrections officers for many years upstate.”

He wasn’t asking a question. It was just a comment — and a complex and disturbing one, at that. But time was up, and we were invited to partake in the refreshments. It was awkward.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Concrete, Steel & Paint is a very good documentary. And it’s an important one. But I’m left with some nagging questions. I’m curious if other viewers of the film were left with similar thoughts, or if you’ve dealt with a similar situation firsthand and have your own take. Let me know in the comments.

If you haven’t seen Concrete, Steel & Paint yet and you’re near New York City, you’ll have a chance to see it this Friday, May 20, 2011, at The Maysles Cinema in Harlem.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen