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Still from Three on a Life Sentence.(dir. Carol Jacobsen, 1998). Used with permission from Carol Jacobsen.


Journal Issue 3.1
Spring 2011
Edited by Agatha Beins, Deanna Utroske, Julie Ann Salthouse, Jillian Hernandez, and
Karen Alexander

Editorial Assistant: Mimi Zander


Carol Jacobsen, activist, scholar, and social documentary artist,
in conversation with Films for the Feminist Classroom

Introduction and Interview by Deanna Utroske

Carol Jacobsen’s films on women incarcerated in the United States are feminist classroom–ready. Many are short enough to be screened and discussed in one university class period. Her low-budget, vérité style makes the films accessible and intimate. Yet, they can be hard films to watch. Jacobsen documents jarring experiences of individual women as well as the broader human rights void where incarcerated women reside. And even once a film finishes, viewers know that women live in prison well beyond the 6, 10, 15, even 70 minutes that it takes to screen one of Jacobsen’s films, films she’s been making throughout her decades-long career.
           An artist, activist, and scholar, Jacobsen earned her bachelor’s and master of fine arts degrees from Eastern Michigan University, and she’s active with the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project. Her work has been shown, well-received, and won awards internationally. The photography and video installation “Mistrial” was cosponsored by Amnesty International in New York City (2011). Jacobsen won the Sarah Goddard Power Award for significant contributions to the betterment of women in 2010 and the Amigas Foundation’s award for activism and research on Clemency for Women Prisoners in 1995. Her films have appeared at the Strasbourg International Film Festival of Strasbourg, France (2009) and the OVNI International Film Festival in Barcelona, Spain, (2003), among others.
        These credentials and accolades can seem to juxtapose Jacobsen’s grassroots approach and the intimacy of her films. She is a talented academic and a celebrated filmmaker and artist; yet her work extends beyond vérité filmmaking, beyond activist art, beyond accomplished scholarship, and beyond policy work. It is the day-to-day sum of her endeavors and the reach of her work that is valuable and powerful. True to form, Jacobsen sees to the reach (or distribution) of her films herself; we learn from the following interview that she personally mails out or hand delivers a number of films each week. And by doing so Jacobsen ensures that “citizens [can look] inside to see for themselves who’s in prison and why and also to see what the conditions are.”
      My interview with Carol Jacobsen took place via email in the winter of 2010-2011 and benefited from the editorial input of Films for the Feminist Classroom co-Founding Editor Karen Alexander.

Deanna Utroske: Much of your work centers on women in United States prisons. Why is this the issue you have taken as a subject of your artistic, scholarly, and activist work?

Carol Jacobsen: I was hooked in 1989, the first time I went inside a women’s prison. I was invited by Christina Jose, an activist who had organized a children’s visitation program at Huron Valley Women’s Prison, to make a film with the women inside. I made Our Children Do Time With Us (1990, 30 min.), which Dr. Jose used to raise funds to keep the program running. First, I was stunned to see myself in the faces and stories of the women who were serving time, especially those who had acted in their own defense against abusers and were now serving life. The criminalization of our experiences as women – lesbians, prostitutes, women who’d had abortions, been raped, or battered - was an injustice that resonated with my own shame-filled past, and I could not walk away. Second, I was deeply disturbed by witnessing the institutionalized dehumanization of the women. Prison is punishment by loss of freedom, confinement. I wondered how the institution, and the people running it, could so casually inflict cruelty, retaliation, and degradation on women in custody on top of that?

Utroske: Can you describe your filmmaking process? (What kinds of decisions do you make in planning a film? What sort of equipment do you use? Do you work alone or with the assistance of others? What is the editing process like?)

Jacobsen: I make films out of a need to say what I wish to see and hear that is absent from the public sphere. When I made From One Prison… I was driven to bring people face-to-face with women inside in order to see and feel what I did and to hear the women’s social critiques of a criminal-legal system that failed them, that fails us all. With Sentenced (2002; 6 mins.), I wanted to make an homage to a woman I’d filmed and corresponded with who had committed suicide. I had not recognized her last letter as a goodbye, and I needed to respond to the loss that many of us – her friends inside and outside the prison - felt when she died. Some film ideas have been presented by the women who narrate them. Segregation Unit (2000; 34 mins.) was narrated by Jamie Whitcomb, who obtained footage, through subpoena, that was shot by guards of Jamie herself being chained down over and over. After she sued the State of Michigan for torture and won a settlement, she and I made the film. The women in Three on a Life Sentence (1998; 30 mins.) asked me to come into the prison and film their conversation about the injustices in their trials. Convicted: A Prison Diary (2006; 10 mins.) combined footage of a woman’s confession to police and excerpts from her letters to me over a period of a year. And for Time Like Zeros (2010; 12 mins.) I interviewed eight women who were recently released from prison.

I have worked with the same camerawoman, Susan Gardner, since 1992. She knows what I’m after in the shots and that I want extreme close-ups of faces for interviews. We used to shoot three-quarter inch tape and later on mini-DV tape. If I need footage that’s illegal or dangerous to obtain, I shoot it myself: for example, prison exteriors or certain neighborhoods at night in Detroit. On those occasions, I usually call my lawyer beforehand to let her know what I’m doing in case I get arrested! I do the editing myself, sometimes alone, other times with my colleague Shaun Bangert, who has coproduced several films with me, on Final Cut Pro. When I conduct an interview, I begin by telling the woman my own history: that I’m making a nonprofit film for a feminist audience, a film intended to educate and inform and to encourage participation in social change. I pay women for interviews, although I was not allowed to pay the women who were in prison. It bothered me that, although we were working together to get their voices out into the public sphere and speak together about the failure of the criminal justice system, the films did not help their individual cases. So I began working with them and with attorneys on clemency petitions, parole packages, and legal cases. Next I started bringing students and citizens into the prison with me and teaching university classes on human rights, women in prison, and activist practices. I have used all my films as educational and advocacy tools because I wanted my work to be part of a larger feminist political-legal-cultural movement for change. I am interested in creating face-to-face experiences for audiences to challenge the myths and misrepresentations of women lawbreakers that Hollywood and the corporate media produce. I’m invested in keeping my work grassroots, visually concise, nonprofit.

Utroske: How does your training as an artist (a painter, to be specific) come to bear on your filmmaking?

Jacobsen: When I was a figure painter in graduate school I was interested in depicting individual human experience within a political context. The figure was my primary subject, yet I wanted to include a narrative within the paintings. I studied “old mistress/master” painters such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Diego Velasquez and Edouard Manet for their overt and covert messages and meanings as well as for their formal, concise compositions and their skillful flair with the medium. I was also inspired by the work of Kathe Kollwitz, whose stark figure drawings and prints communicate both her passionate intellect and her social commitment to human dignity, and whose diary gave me insights into her motivations as an artist. I moved to photography and film/video because the “reality” and the technological aspects of those media allowed me to create a different kind of portrait with subjects who could speak for themselves. Since I write the interview questions and do the editing, we are, in a sense, speaking/working together through a contemporary medium that is powerful, immediate, “alive.” It is also very shareable.

Utroske: Can you talk about the distinction between video and film (not literally in terms of physical material but practically in terms of each medium’s output)?

Jacobsen: Film still produces the most beautiful image visually. But economically and temporally there’s no comparison. As Susan Sontag said about contemporary digital photography, it is an affordable, democratic, immediate medium that allows almost everyone to have a camera in their pocket and to produce images and voices that would otherwise be unheard, invisible. Hannah Arendt’s definition of freedom, as I understand it, is having access to speak and be active and heard in the public sphere.

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