Recapping A Night at Otisville

We asked TFI/ESPN grantee and IF/Then Shorts filmmaker Ashley Brandon to share her experience from our event "A Night at Otisville." Take it away Ashley... 

On December 11th I was invited to visit and screen a film at the Otisville Correctional Facility at an event hosted by The Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College and Tribeca Film Institute. The evening event was titled A Night at Otisville, and admittedly, I was nervous. My film to be screened that evening, On the Bit, was newly completed and yet to be seen by a general audience. The typical filmmaker jitters were there – will they like my film, does the story make sense, am I any good at this filmmaking thing? These typical questions of doubt that marquee across any artists mind before exhibition were scrolling through my head in the days (and a few sleepless nights) before my Otisville visit. But, the question I lost the most sleep over was, how can my short film about a woman and horse possibly resonate with the men currently living in the correctional center?

In the minutes before the evening’s festivities kicked off I found myself in the event’s venue, a beautifully decorated gymnasium. It was here that I learned more about the innovative educational initiatives taking place at Otisville Correctional Facility, John Jay College’s Prison-To-College Pipeline program and the Tribeca Community Screening Series. I learned that the Tribeca Community Screening Series brings films and their makers to the Otisville Facility not only for screening but also for thorough discussion, critique, and analysis facilitated by the students taking part in the program. Not only was I screening my film for the first time, but I was screening to an educated audience trained in film analysis and critique – did I mention I was nervous?

On the Bit screened, and during its fourteen minute and twenty-second run, I could hear my heartbeat. I didn’t know it as I made my way up to join Q&A Facilitator, Moses El-Sun White, on stage, but the next few minutes would be the highlight of my night. As the microphone was passed around from student to student, I was asked the most interesting and thoughtful questions I’ve ever been asked in a post-screening Q&A. There were times I had to pause and think before my answer, something that doesn’t always happen when you find yourself explaining the same questions over and over again from film festival to festival.

The Q&A and the one-on-one conversations afterward were an enlightening and refreshing experience, and to my delight, the students shared with me that my story about a woman and horse did resonate. As Dino Solorzano, a former Community Screening Series Facilitator, explained beautifully at the end of the evening, it is sometimes in the stories which are very unlike our own that we find compassion for others, and when that empathy is felt on screen, it inevitably transcends into real life. That evening, I wasn’t just an invited filmmaker showing a film, but an individual being educated by the students at Otisville, who reminded me why I want to make films and the power and possibility which art can transcend communities like and unlike my own.

A week later, I find myself returning to the memories of A Night at Otisville – memories which I hold onto as I begin my next projects, lessons which I needed to hear to remind myself why I embarked on this filmmaking journey in the first place. And for that, I am thankful for that night at Otisville.

The event also include a panel led by Baz Dreisinger, Founding Academic Director of the Prison-to-College Piepeline program, and included TFI's Executive Director Amy Hobby, Former Community Screening Series Faciliatator Moses El-Sun White and Dino Solorzano and Actor Allison Williams.

Ashley can be found at ashleybrandonfilm.com and @ashbrando419!

Photos courtesy of John Jay College. Read more about the event on their blog