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Guerrilla Documentary: Prison Interviews

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/4/2011

People do not always behave legally, and so you may have to head toward the prison for your interview. This takes special consideration to get in and question your subject.

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    Controversial Subjects

    Getting interviews with people who have violated the law for whatever reason can be an important element of your documentary. Your topic may cover issues that are not always addressed in a culturally accepted fashion, and often times people break social standards to further their objectives. These things can play together in your dramatic film prose and end up highlighting a large conflict. To get some of these interviews you may have to actually address the people while they are incarcerated, which is one of the hardest locations to get an interview from.

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    Prison interviews can work out wonderfully for a number of reasons. The location itself provides a number of great opportunities for the kind of B-roll that will really give context to the situation the subject is in. Likewise, the interview will be taken a certain way immediately when it is seen that they are set in a prison environment. When conducting and interview in this location you often have a specified location to be in that can act as a studio. In this way you do not have to worry about where you are going to be able to conduct an interview.

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    Contact Them and Their Attorneys

    The first thing you need to do is to contact the legal support team and attorneys of the subject. Write them an essential query letter explaining the project and why you would want to conduct the interview. Provide detailed information about the film and anything else that will add credibility to the project and to you as a filmmaker. Next you need to go ahead and write a personal letter to the individual in custody. Make sure when writing the letter you be vague enough that it is not marked by the prison officials when going in. Do not mention any criminal activity explicitly in the letter, but be clear about the kinds of things you would like to talk to them about.

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    Contact the Prison

    Once you have permission from the person and their legal council you are going to need to do the hardest part of this process. You will now need to contact the prison itself and ask for permission to come in and film. They are going to need to know all the details they possibly can, but make sure to slant all information about the film in a way that they will not find objectionable. This means that you have to make clear that you do not endorse or condone any activity that the person engaged in to be in the facility. Giving a resume and list of recommenders is not a bad way to further sell yourself in this situation. If you have any academic or political connections that you feel may serve you in this case have them also write a letter to go along with yours.

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    If you are trying to interview someone arrested for tax fraud you have a good chance of getting in. If you are trying to get someone who shot an abortion doctor you are going to have some difficulty. Crimes that are linked to social movements or some form of radicalism are hot button issues because the prison believes that there are people who are highly sympathetic to them. To help this along you may want to mention how you want to also focus on their rehabilitation and they’re attempts to reconfirm. Remember, no matter what you say in your letters you actually have the full control once you are interviewing the subject. Your choice of questions is purely up to you.

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    Phone Interview

    If you are not able to get in for the interview because of prison exclusion you likely can do a phone interview. The best way to do this is to not mention the fact that you will be recording the interview until you are actually on the phone with the person. The chances are that they will not object to you doing this if they had already said yes to you doing the phone interview. If you mention that you are going to record the phone call in a letter the prison may ban you from phone communication. Just arrange a phone call, then once on the phone ask them in confidence if it is fine to use audio recording on the interview. From here an audio booth connected to a computer is best, though you often can just plug your cell phone in so that an audio mixing program will pick it up. One of the best and worst parts of this is that you will often pick up an automated message stating that you are talking to a prisoner. Play with this as you like.

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    Be Honest

    When it comes to portrayal it is up to you how you want this to be seen. Keep your vision clear and do not try to exploit incarcerated people simply for salaciousness.