By, Lillian Isabella (Writer, Actor, Creative Content Coordinator at Tribeca Film Institute)
On June 15, 2016 I got to go to Otisville prison with Tribeca Film Institute’s® (TFI) VP of Education, Vee Bravo, when he took a group of TFI staff for a screening of Musa Syeed’s documentary A BRONX PRINCESS. The film follows the journey of Rocky Otoo, a Bronx-bred teenage daughter of Ghanaian parents in a coming-of-age story set in both the Bronx and Ghana.
Syeed came with us to the prison for a post-screening Q&A with the inmates. The screening was part of our Community Screening Series, where we hold free screenings of independent films across various communities and civic spaces to encourage dialogue, introspection, and social action. The facilitators, inmates themselves, prompted the post-screening discussion with the question ‘What is culture?’ The 30+ prisoners in attendance then talked about Otoo’s balancing of two cultures, her homes in the Bronx and Ghana, and how socialization can be a hard transition. They also asked Syeed questions about his filmmaking process.
This was the first time Syeed had screened any of his films at a prison, and he said the experience was eye-opening.
“The screening at Otisville was one of the best in my career, thanks to the men who facilitated the conversation,” he said. “They read my film closer than maybe anyone ever has, making new connections I hadn't considered. In the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl, they found inspiration for the transitions they're hoping to make. That's perhaps the best gift an audience can give you – helping you see your work in a new way. And the men at Otisville were very giving.”
Also at the screening we explored cultural differences between Ghana and New York, touching on how gender roles and expectations differed in the two different cultures. As all the prisoners are men, the facilitator invited the women visiting from TFI to weigh in.
The invitation to participate and voice my perceptions of the film made me feel relaxed and valued. When I go to a film screening with a Q&A I often engage in the discussion, but right before I speak I’m struck with nerves – life outside prison is a competitive world, full of judgmental people and status quos that can make it feel unsafe to explore and share ideas.
However, inside the prison’s gymnasium walls where the screening happens at Otisville, the facilitators work to make sure everyone is heard and given time to talk – prisoner, guest, and guard alike.
Paola Espinosa, our Manager, Operations and Events, coordinates cultivation screenings at TFI and was blown away by the amount of participation.
“I have never seen that level of engagement from an audience,” she said. “The men at Otisville were not only paying attention to the film but also actively taking the content and having a conversation about it.”
Our Manager, Creative Design, Ryan Pattison echoed that sentiment and observed the conversation had to be pulled back at times.
“It’s rare to see a group of people as engaged as this group of 30 or so,” he said. “The facilitators would sometimes need to halt the discussion to keep the event moving forward. It’s inspiring to see men who have had so much taken away make so much of what little they have.”
It is inspiring, and worth noting. Whenever I leave Otisville I ask myself, what am I making of all the freedom and time I have been given?