POV: How did you get access to film at Bedford Hills, and what were the challenges of making a workshop process dramatic and filmic?
Judith Katz: Superintendent Elaine Lord is the reason we got access into Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She gave it to us because she trusted Eve Ensler. Before we began shooting there had been three other performances of the inmates’ work, which Gary Sunshine had worked on with Eve, as fundraisers for educational programs. The performances were held at outside theatres, including Lincoln Center. So while Supt. Lord knew what Eve was doing and what the women were writing, it was a leap of faith to allow us inside the classroom with cameras while the women were working. No one except the three production crewmembers were permitted inside while we filmed, not even a correctional officer.
Filming the performance involved other challenges. For one thing, we had to shut all the lights in the gym, which serves as a theater at the prison. This had never before been done. Again, Superintend Elaine Lord and the staff at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility were cooperative and allowed us to close the house lights. Another test was how to do justice to the prominent actresses using a minimum of production values. All of these actresses were used to working on multi-million dollar films, and we certainly were not that. Yet not one of them ever complained or questioned us. Again, I think it was a matter of trust; they had all worked with Eve Ensler before, and had donated their time at fundraisers for the prison and were willing to be filmed with imperfect lighting, no makeup and almost no rehearsal so that the prison population could see the performance, and we could film it.
So, the challenges of filming in the prison were enormous; we were restricted to certain areas and as mentioned above, at some point were not allowed inside the prison. There were days when we loaded up the cameras and drove up to the prison and weren’t sure until we got there that we would be allowed to film. This was especially true after September 11th, when security alerts were high. Also, there is no communications between the inmates and outside people, so we never knew what to expect until we got there: someone might be ill, or in lockdown, or hadn’t completed their writing assignments. Perhaps that is why the footage is so raw and real. However, it certainly made for a challenge in turning the footage into a cohesive film with a story arc. I think Gary Sunshine and Madeleine Gavin met that challenge brilliantly, and they can tell you about their experience.
Gary Sunshine: We had all this footage that was potentially fascinating but suddenly stopped, when the crew was prohibited from returning. And then we were given one more day to shoot at Bedford, a day that included a new performance before three hundred inmates. So we had to plan meticulously exactly what we needed to shoot in order to have enough to create a viable film. The challenge for Madeleine and me was to find a narrative structure that was elastic enough to contain so many disparate elements, none of which lent themselves to an obvious, linear presentation — inmates reading their texts and ensuing discussions; actresses rehearsing, actresses performing. There was no obvious narrative to track from beginning to end, especially since the workshop itself still continues to this day, in large part because Eve is so devoted to these women. So we decided to aim for an emotional and thematic trajectory that showed the women moving from victims of their past circumstances, to victimizers, to people who struggle to transcend both polarities and to accept responsibility for their actions, while they struggle to live meaningful lives.