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The power of poetry | The Velvet Café

at nightDo you remember the scene when Andy played classical music in the speakers in The Shawshank Redemption so every prisoner could hear it?

I bet you do. It’s one of the emotional highpoints of the movie, pinpointing the power of art, how it doesn’t recognize any walls and how it can help your soul and spirit to break out of any physical or psychological prison.

At Night I Fly is another film that deals with this topic, but with the difference that this isn’t the product of someone’s imagination. It’s a documentary about real life prisoners who have found a way to cope with their existence through art.

A rough environment
The Swedish debuting director Michel Wenzer shows the lives of a group of men who serve life time sentences in the New Folsom prison in California.

It’s a rough environment, looking pretty much exactly as Shawshank or any other prison we’ve seen in recent years in American movies. There’s the concrete everywhere, the minimal cells in endless rows and layers, looking like the interior of a Borg ship. There are the conflicts between different ethnical groups which basically don’t talk to each other and there’s the hopelessness, there’s the constant threat of violence hanging in the air, sucking the life out of the prisoners as well as their guards, as efficiently as any dementor in Harry Potter.

But that’s not all there is. There is a room where the air is different, easier to breath and where the black and white guy can talk to each other as friends without fearing what others may think about it. It’s the room where the program “Arts in Correction” takes place, where prisoners sing, play and have readings of poetry they’ve written themselves.

And that’s what this film mostly is about. It doesn’t deal at all with what actions brought the prisoners to the place where they are now. It’s mentioned that someone has murdered someone, but the film doesn’t dwell much at it. Nor does it ponder much at the question if the conditions in the New Folsom prison are inhuman or not, if they deserve to be where there are there for the rest of their lives or not.

The space of choice
This documentary is rather about the power of art and what a source of comfort it can be, to anyone, no matter of life circumstances. When you find yourself entangled in life, fumbling in darkness like Frodo did in the caves in Mordor, you can look inside and let out the poetry, the creativity that is hidden somewhere and it will shine like the bottle of Galadriel.

Without explicitly quoting him, At Night I fly reminded me of the glitch that the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl talked about after his experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust, the space there is between what happens to us and how we chose to react to it:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Small audience
So far this film has been shown at two small festivals in Munich respectively Sheffield, and last week it opened in Sweden in six cities, of which mine was one. That’s not a lot – especially not compared to the million headed audience of The Shawshank Redemption.

The likeliness that someone reading this ever will get the opportunity to watch it is small to say the least, which is a little saddening. We were five people in the theatre as I watched it. So much for the influence of critics; unanimous praise obviously doesn’t matter to most people when they pick which movie to watch. They go for what they think will entertain them. And how entertaining does a documentary about an American prison sound?

It is a pity though. I think it could be just as much of a source of inspiration as the number one movie at IMDb.

Even more saddening is the fact that the Arts in Correction program was eliminated from New Folsom in January 2010 due to the state’s financial crisis.

At Night I Fly (Michel Wenzer, SWE 2011) My rating: 4/5

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