The Prisoner of the Iron Bars opens with a fabulously arresting image: reverse slo-mo shots of the prison being demolished. Walls rise up, smoke billows downwards, chunks of rubble leap upwards into the building. This film is a record, shot by the prisoners themselves, of the last seven months of Brazil’s Carandiru prison, site of the notorious massacre of eleven inmates in the ‘90s.
We all want to go to jail, though we’d rather it was from the comfort of an armchair and not in person. Prisons belong to those secretive, menacing, oddly alluring institutions that have always attracted documentary-makers and we hope will attract audiences reared on TV cop shows. Giving the camera to the prisoners themselves is not new; in fact, the BBC once had an entire series from behind UK cell doors, ‘Prison Weekly’. This film holds out the promise of more: the inside story of “the Gates of Hell”, Latin America’s biggest jail, complete with crack-smoking, knives and slashings.
There are sequences that start to fulfil the promise of showing things we haven’t seen before: a flamboyant tour of the gay wing, a giggly demonstration of the workings of an illegal hooch still, 14 men crammed in a punishment cell so tiny they have to take turns sleeping, a lovingly-painted mural of a Zapatista guerrilla on an inmate’s cell wall, a sickening photo series of the dead victims of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, the tone of delight in an inmate’s voice as he films fireworks through the bars of his cell. Overall though, The Prisoner of the Iron Bars fails to break through the bars of the ‘community video workshop’ format from which it sprang. The structure is too episodic to get a grip on the viewers’ attention; the pacing too uneven, certainly lacking the verve of recent Brazilian fiction films. Though it’s admirably democratic to have included the self-portraits of so many Caranduru prisoners, they flash by so fast I’m left wishing I’d spent longer with fewer of them.
This is Brazil, so there’s a lot of football. It’s a men’s prison, so there are a lot of lingering shots of porno pin-ups on cell walls. The two obsessions meet neatly when the winners of a prison soccer tournament get their prize: a copy of Playboy.