Prison Songs: a snapshot in song and dance of indigenous Australians’ prison experiences, and the issues that blight their lives

Kelrick Martin, “Prison Songs” (2015)

Billed as Australia’s first musical documentary, and probably the first of its kind to be set in a prison, “Prison Songs” is a snapshot in song and dance of Australian indigenous people’s experiences in prison through the stories of individual prisoners held in Darwin’s Berrimah Prison. The film tackles issues of alcoholism and substance abuse, domestic violence, the alienation of indigenous Australians in white society and the stress and struggle they undergo in trying to find their own paths in a country that was originally their own but which has been taken away from them and moulded into something completely different and hostile to them. The stories the prisoners tell are not only very personal but highly intimate and moving.

For this film, director Martin sat with and interviewed selected prisoners with singer-songwriter Shellie Morris sitting in. Morris later took her impressions and complete interview transcripts to Casey Bennetto in Melbourne and together they wrote the songs in a mix of various styles ranging from blues to reggae, hiphop and gospel. All songs are sung and performed by the chosen prisoners: the lyrics are frank and straightforward, and thus easy to follow and even to sing along to in their choruses. The approach taken by some songs to their subject matter is often creative: one song about alcohol and its effects on people’s thinking and behaviour addresses the demon drink as a seductive and demanding lover; another song riffing on the experience of prison life presents Berrimah Prison as a hotel where inmates can enjoy 24/7 security, free food and state-of-the-art (if not visually aesthetic) exercise facilities. One very emotional song is sung by a female prisoner who finds her refuge in Christianity to counter feelings of guilt and shame, and to find a purpose in life.

Title cards that inform viewers of statistics about the incarceration of indigenous Australians and of some of the history of Berrimah prison provide the background context to the prisoners’ experiences. The cinematography uses plenty of negative space and bird’s-eye viewpoint shots to emphasise the isolation of the prisoners from the rest of the world. The film’s style is minimal and stark, in which prisoners have both starring roles and roles as background and chorus line extras.

Because the stories are often so personal, there is the danger that they may not be seen as part of a larger phenomenon in which dispossession and the colonial experience have damaged indigenous cultures and replaced them with a caricature of Western society in which poverty, unemployment leading to boredom, addictive substances and violence dominate people’s lives and become the fabric that links successive generations of people who otherwise have no hope or purpose.

Since the documentary was made, Berrimah Prison has been converted into a facility for juvenile offenders and the adult prisoners moved into a newer, larger facility elsewhere. Unfortunately there is very little information given in the documentary about the prison itself and who runs it or was running it until its conversion.

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