Human rights and can be born out of something so simple, even something as simple as just making an effort to be better.
The JAYU’s 8th annual Human Rights Film Festival is kicking off tonight at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and running until Dec. 10th with a brief but important lineup of films tackling a diverse array of issues and illuminating to audiences through film and discussion.
It’s opening film tonight is 16 Bars which is a poignant look inside a flawed prison system filled with people who are at least putting in the effort to overcome the issues that got them there, something we don’t always seen in other films of this nature.
America is infamous for having the highest incarceration rate in the world. 16 Bars presents an alternative solution to the crisis through the universal language of music. Speech, from Grammy award winning hip-hop group Arrested Development, leads a music workshop in a Richmond City jail as part of a program dedicated to lowering recidivism rates. As Speech interacts with four inmates and learns about their pasts, we are confronted with the stark reality of addiction and the structural nature of recidivism. More importantly, 16 Bars is a testament to the power of music as social activism. Music gives these inmates an opportunity to tell their stories and transform their lives. As we follow their journeys in and out of jail, 16 Bars will have you cheering and clapping to the rhythm of their lives.
To its credit; 16 Bars isn’t a film that gets heavy handed, rather it decides to focus on a positive message of social activism through music allowing some of the voiceless of the prison system to be heard for the very first time.
Director Sam Bathrick takes real care in highlighting his subjects and allows us a fairly unvarnished look at the trouble with drugs that have sent so many of these inmates to jail and we often forget that people in these situations need an opportunity to try and improve their situations. When I got the chance to talk with Sam about this in advance of the screening tonight and ask him what inspired him to make this film he had this to say.
You know to be honest; it all just came out of the fact that there was a recording studio in this jail. Before this I had been working mostly on music based documentaries so it was that idea that really drew me in. While I was aware of some of the bigger issues that this film hits on I certainly can’t profess to being any kind of activist or an expert on this front. I was just incredibly drawn to the idea that we could hear music and lyrics from people who are behind bars.
The very nature of locking someone is to silence them and this is such an opposite of that idea. While I was certainly drawn to the bigger issues that are inherent in the system for me as a story teller it was about finding those micro-stories and zooming all the way in to see this particular jail, at this particular time with the four guys that we follow in the film.
Music is at the heart of this film and no more so then in the heart and the mind of the primary subject in the film; the rapper and musician Speech who you may know from the group Arrested Development who is known in the music community for creating socially conscience hip-hop. He’s the heart of it all, working with these prisoners as they find their voices.
I asked Sam how he connected with Speech…
Speech and I met while I was in production on a different film for PBS about musicians and artists in Atlanta. While Arrested Development doesn’t necessarily represent the hard edge of hip-hop that you associate with people in jail, they’re such forbearers of social conscience music in that community that having Speech along for this project was really a perfect pairing because he’s someone who has been able to write about real things and real issues in his life and these guys in this program that we see are really being encouraged to do the same.
The film also casts an honest light on the drug issues and the opiate crisis in America. I was genuinely taken aback by how many of the subjects in the film said that they were there because of issues surrounding drugs (Heroin in particular). Sam got a real glimpse while he was inside with his subjects on the issue and had this to say…
Yeah, no doubt and it wasn’t just the four guys that we were talking to. While I obviously don’t know about any exact percentages the numbers were alarmingly high for guys inside on charges that were drug related. Granted in this program that we are highlighting, you can’t be a murderer or a rapist and they are all (or at least most) are non-violent offenders but the big thing was that with this Sheriff of this particular jail who was such a big supporter of getting us access inside; he wanted it to be seen that really they are having to lock up people with mental health issues and addiction (neither of which are actual crimes) but it’s often the only place for them in the current system. He’s very actively trying to make a point and create some kind of environment for these people to at least have a chance at addressing some of the root causes behind the behaviour that got them sent to jail in the first place. Not just reform per say, but being in the 12 steps program and getting some kind of mental health support
16 Bars highlights something that we often forget about but is so necessary for people no matter their situation. To try and give them a sense of purpose, which is a human right that we can very easily take for granted.
From tonight through Dec 10th, the JAYU’s 8th annual Human Rights Film Festival is showing these films and more which all deserve the audience and the discussion necessary to try and make the world a better place.
For more info on this and other films at the festival you can visit their website right here.