Denmark, Finland, 2017.
Freedom is one of those words often used to convey an ideological purpose. Even to this day, its implementation is wasted in the United States, a country that, in fact, has a perfect working prison industry (see also: https://www.moderntimes.review/fight-line-today/). Land of the Free, the first feature length documentary by the young Danish filmmaker Camilla Magid, was shown as part of the documentary film competition at the recent Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
No right answers. Not having many other life choices, Brian is one of thousands in South Central Los Angeles who grew up in gangs. Petty crimes eventually lead to more serious ones. One day he commits murder, a crime for which he never forgives himself and somehow doesn’t even understand. He spends the next twenty four years in prison and, once back on the outside, discovers the world has changed. The speed of traffic surprises him as does the taste of real coffee. Brian needs help to apply for his own e-mail address since the prison system has not prepared him to survive outside its walls. But he wants to succeed. Pastor Swaringer is one of those people who tries to make this possible. He includes Brian in his diverse group of ex-con’s all looking for help and social contacts. A psychologist, Richard, teaches Brian a method to develop trust in himself and a capacity for sharing. Moreover, he opens his mind to a concept of permanent, fruitful transformation: “There are no right answers. There are only right questions.”
Magid spent two years with her main subjects. During this time, Brian finds work, an apartment, a girlfriend and a path back to the family who had rejected him in his youth. But he still prefers not to speak about the most painful moment of his life, which evidently continues to torture him. That was not the person he is today. This is how he is finding his way out.
Senseless violence. Magid presents two other figures from the same suburbs of Los Angeles. Things haven’t really changed for the twenty-year-old Juan who has just been released from prison for drug dealing. Even when he affirms his best intentions to Pastor Swaringer’s group and appears integrated in his family life as a loving, young father with the support of his wife, he fails and ends up back on the street dealing drugs. Magid manages to keep contact with him, but she finds a resigned young man for whom a normal life does not seem to be a real option. Now in his early twenties, he is too old to be accepted back into high school and is still profoundly disoriented by his memories of the ritual beatings in prison, senseless violence he experienced both as victim and unwilling perpetrator.
At first glance, seven-year-old Gianni hates his mother with an incredibly painful and unexplainable force. Helpless, she can only react with aggression and punishment. There is a real risk of the situation escalating more out of hand. Again, it’s the psychologist, Robert, who offers significant help to intercept the spiral of violence. He discovers the traumatic events Gianni experienced while his mother was absent, having been imprisoned for attempting to smuggle two hundred pounds of marijuana over the border. Once an explanation is found for Gianni’s helpless and hateful acts against his mother, a new start appears to be possible. Also taking part in the Pastor’s group, Gianni’s mother is slowly able to establish a new and healthy means of communication with her son, giving him the basis to become successful in school.
It’s unusual, but altogether remarkable that a documentary should treat such difficult material with a hopeful ending. However, Magid never fails to inform the spectator on how fragile hope can be in an atmosphere where prisons merely function as lifetime incarceration machines, providing no integration or development tools to its inmates. Magid accentuates the role of extraordinary individuals who offer help with real capacities, knowledge and belief. But it’s evident that Brian will suffer all his life, Gianni will continue to be fearfully confined in his own neighborhood and Juan will most probably spend his life in prison.
Camilla Magid confirms her talent of revealing the fragile existence of her subjects, something she already demonstrated in her portrayal of two Syrian women in a rapidly changing Arab world in her short doc The Black Lines (2006). This skill was even more evident in her film White Black Boy (2012), where she follows a Tanzanian albino boy who is confronted with superstition and threats in a society where people with pigment deficiencies are perceived as having magical powers.
Camilla Magid does not hide the fact that in the process of filming Land of the Free her concept and primary focus changed radically. Instead, she chose to trust her observations and encounters more than any pre-conceived ideas. Of course, documentary filmmakers who want to offer a real enterprise of discovery don’t trust a script before the filming process begins. Those scripts can only represent facts already known. But ‘known facts’ are often a simplifying illusion which get lost in the process when confronted with reality.