Saturday, 17 May 2014

Review - Outside Chance

Outside Chance is a 5 part documentary series. The series was broadcast on Australian national television, weekly on the ABC2 channel during April and May 2014. 
Outside Chance - a documentary series narrated by Andrew Krakouer, following a team of prison inmates, as they participate in a rarely seen rehabilitation program that uses Australian Rules football to prepare them for a life on the outside.

Set in Wooroloo Prison Farm, a minimum security prison in Western Australia, though subtle in the introduction, it soon becomes apparent that most of the team are Indigenous.

We don’t know what their crimes are - though notes reveal low security prison farms exclude inmates convicted of sex crimes and homicide. 

Writer / Director : Kelrick Martin
Credits : Yagan, 2013; Mad Morro, 2007

We get to know a number of the players with the barest of details – their name, sentence and time served, though many if not all of the participants would be known - if not personally, then by family name - in the local Indigenous community.

There’s a familiarity to the inmates personal stories. Alcohol, drug use, auto theft and references to using violence on the outside to settle disputes are frequently mentioned.

The first and second episodes reveal life on the inside, where they are housed, fed, have access to exercise and look to football for an outlet and also because it gives them time with their family and friends when they travel outside of the prison to play their weekly game on the weekend.

As the episodes unfold we learn more about how they got to be in jail. From sparse brush strokes, each episode reveals greater depth to the characters and by the fourth of the five episodes, I find it a fascinating, nuanced character study.

We all know Aboriginal men are locked up at higher rates, and over represented in every jail in Australia. 

But if you were serious about arresting the warehousing of Aboriginal men, you’d want to know ‘why’?

Kids locked up for driving offences is a tiny portion of the story – what caused them to think this was the biggest thrill and worth risking jail? 

All to frequently the extent of the crime is overlooked.

In order to steal a car – or as I observed over a three week period in Bourke a decade ago, in order to steal twenty one cars – they are not finding the car with the keys in it on the side of the road. They are entering homes, breaking into properties, in some cases they are going through any obstacles, which include bars, padlocks, the family dog, and the occupants of the premises.

These are by no means victimless crimes. There is an emergence of a frightening pathology in these crimes, where parents and families, can see the benefits in having their child incarcerated, if only for 'their own good'.

Police stations in remote communities have cited they've been established at the request of the women who live there, not the authorities from elsewhere, who read the research and took the most expedient and cheapest option available.

A twelve year old (which is the coming of age for incarceration) taking what doesn’t belong to him is one thing - but what about the child that will use violence to get what they want? It does a disservice to that child to trick up their crimes to sound like a kid in a lolly shop reaching for a Mars bar.

The effects of poverty and broken families, and being under the influence of illicit substances are all to often the cause, and too often this explanation is the extent of the examination of the cause of escalating rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people.  What is beneath that layer of poverty and over representation in Australian prisons?

This is where the Outside Chance documentary series gets interesting for me.

Being caught in a cycle of offending and incarceration for increasingly longer terms, feels inevitable but there are indications there is a plan to it, at least in the early days.

Jail is a violent place and institutionalisation leads to a high quota of mental illness, and manipulative and self destructive behaviours. They all claim to hate the forced family separations  – but for some inmates, it provides a way of life they can’t get on the outside.

It takes away harassment from law enforcement, which is how early intervention and justice reinvestment can feel.
It provides a bed, and three meals a day.
It provides simple things like clean clothes and a structured day. A person has a reason to get up.
Where they tip into ‘institutionalized’ is a slow slide, where the willful takes the brakes off, relinquishing control over those parts we prize and other’s if we’re lucky, nurture, that make us independent and capable of aspirations.  The ability to plan all the steps to make dreams happen is excised. They might know what they want, but don’t know how to get there.

Prison rehab programs like 'New Horizons' are critical because it uses a medium that appeals – in this case playing football, and for physically fit, bored and stressed men, high impact sports are what is required – and the glossy expectations that read so well in department memos, media releases and sound bytes of ‘team building, learning responsibility, pride and self esteem’ are all valuable byproducts of such a program.

So far so good, and the first four episodes were revealing what I already knew, while demonstrating some fine documentary making, and delivering some useful insights from the other side – the authorities who frame and maintain, and for some work to get elected, promoted and shoehorned into a successful career, by supporting an effective prisoner rehabilitation program.

The background to the series reveal this is the second time this rehab program has operated. It was suspended in 2009 when the prison team won the local competition, though I am unable to find why people complained about the team, or the WA Department of Correctional Services felt the program was not worth persevering with any longer.

And then something happens in the fourth episode which made me sit up and take notice.

We can all work on a successful project – and see results - and then ‘something happens’.

Those who have been involved in community work beyond the superficial know exactly what I am talking about.

Why do they fail? 

What happens so that what was once thriving and (seemingly) euphoric for the participants and definitely for the organizers, starts to fall apart – what factors conspire to sabotage the project, program, service, and what can seem like, the whole community?

What happens that will lead too often to a easy-out conclusion that people don’t know what is good for them or were simply ungrateful?

What happens that leads to a group, a community, a people being abandoned as too hard to engage, and not worth the funding, to see a program through to it’s intended outcomes? Whose failure is it really?

The last episode of this series screens next week, and I’ll be watching to see if it gives some resolution – though the series is by no means a spoon feeding of ‘how to engage inmates effectively’. 

It’s a character study and the subjects are fascinating.

We can sympathise with the inmates because of the bond they’ve formed with the filmmaker. The subjects are flawed, and we sense an honesty in their explanations for those flaws they choose to reveal.  They are also adults, and accustomed to being monitored twenty four hours a day.

They understand they have been documented and that record will be around for the rest of their lives. This feeling of being counted, assessed, analysed - all the research words - is familiar to people both in and out of jail, and lasts for a lifetime.

The inmates are likeable and they look good. They are in peak physical condition and for those who are accustomed to seeing bodies decimated by poverty and violence, alcohol and drugs, a large part of the visual treat is because the Indigenous inmates look healthy.

They don’t have the puffy faces and body bloat from being on the grog the night, week, month before, and they don’t have the glassy eyes of cannabis imbued screen confidence.

And from an outsider’s point of view, what would you learn?

One characteristic is the diversity of physical appearance of the inmates. This is particularly important – in fact it’s important enough for some for it to be their life’s work, arguing that a person's skin colour determines whether a person could or should identify as Aboriginal or not.

Watching Outside Chance shatters any misconception that people choose whether they identify as Aboriginal for gain. And the viewer would find little difference in the experiences of the inmates based on their skin colour.

And finally, it’s good tv. If you are able to unpack what is really going on – and the clues are there if you know what you are looking for – it’s a truly valuable and rewarding experience.

Hearing the Aboriginal vernacular, the black voice we rarely get to see au natural, makes for a lively and engaging screen experience. But it’s the framing of these exchanges that is truly masterful. The filmmaker captures the words and the pauses, the body language and the natural arrangements of Aboriginal men.  There is none of the awkward positioning – chasing the light, the filmmakers eye for what looks right, that has been a tenant of documentary making before Aboriginal people got behind the camera - that results in stilted dialogue and silent body language.

This work - their words - feel real and for that alone, it's a documentary series worth watching. 


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