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Inmates Turn into Filmmakers for Wexner’s Pens to Pictures

Hope Madden Hope Madden Inmates Turn into Filmmakers for Wexner’s Pens to PicturesPhoto via Wright State University.
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Chinonye Chukwu has basically always wanted to make movies.

“I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 13 years old,” says the assistant professor of motion pictures at Wright State University. “I just saw the world through scenes, and I dreamt cinematically. That was what I wanted to do.”

“I have been teaching filmmaking classes from screenwriting to directing, to all kinds of production classes, for 10 years now,” she says. “My entryway into filmmaking really started with screenwriting. That was the way that I initially started telling stories.”

For more than a year now, Chukwu has been working with incarcerated women, helping them hone and tell their own stories cinematically. And, a process that began as an extension of what she does at the university has become, with some help from the Wexner Center for the Arts, a program that turns prisoners into filmmakers.

As part of the art center’s program, Director’s Dialogue on Arts and Social Change, Chukwu will screen and discuss five films made by inmates of the Dayton Correctional Institute.

For the inaugural year of her program Pens to Pictures, Chukwu collaborated with five incarcerated women, leading them through the same eight-week screenwriting course she teaches at Wright State.

Once those five scripts were in final form, Chukwu brought in collaborators—community filmmakers, film students, and Wexner’s full-time film editor Paul Hill—who worked with the filmmakers to bring their scripts to life.

Chukwu became interested in America’s prison system when she was doing research for a screenplay called Clemency.

“I was inspired to write that story—and explore the very human psychological and emotional consequences of capital punishment—the morning after Troy Davis was executed in a Georgia State prison,” she says.

“Troy Davis was a black man who was executed on September 21, 2011. His execution ignited hundreds of thousands of people protesting around the world. That was the first moment I remember being very consciously engaged with social justice issues around the American prison system.”

During the course of her research, Chukwu says she was struck by the stories she heard from wardens, prison staff and the incarcerated.

“In hearing these narratives, I developed a passion for helping share these stories beyond the prison wall,” she says. “I had this idea—let me do what I’ve been doing all these years, but let it go beyond the privileged walls of a college classroom.”

Her program Pens to Pictures was born—an effort specifically to share the stories of incarcerated women.

“I believe that women, in general, are especially silenced,” she explains. “Incarcerated women are almost entirely ignored.”

“I volunteered with an organization in helping to release a woman who was serving a life sentence for a crime she didn’t commit, Tyra Patterson,” Chukwu says. “I volunteered to be a part of her team and in doing so I would visit her at Dayton Correctional. I looked around one day and realized that there are so many stories including Tyra’s that need to be shared and told.”

She goes on, “Women are the fastest rising incarcerated population in the world. Black and brown women are being incarcerated at higher rates than any other demographic. And yet much of the discussion and advocacy around incarceration focuses on men. I wanted to intentionally and specifically redress that lack.”

Chukwu is quick to point out that she is not giving voice to the voiceless.

“I believe that we all have a voice. I don’t believe in this idea of giving somebody their voice,” she says. “The problem is that certain people are silenced, or some people are heard more than others. I think that at the end of the day, all of us as human beings want to be seen and heard. It’s affirming to know that there are people who want you to be heard. I’m trying to let the women who are in this program know that their voice is important and necessary and worthy of being heard.”

“We discard people who have been incarcerated, particularly incarcerated women, and we pathologize them upon their release,” she says. “That, on top of being a woman in the world, and for some of the participants, being black and brown women in the world, we’re constantly treated as if we don’t matter and that we don’t have a voice or that somebody has to give us our voice. I think that this program rejects all of that and it really puts participants at the front and center of their own narratives.”

In all, five short films have emerged from the program:

Bang (Kamisha) portrays a woman with two starving children who has been rejected by nearly everyone and pushed to her limit.
Love or Loyalty (Tyra) examines the bonds formed between women in prison.
Trans-Parent (Jamie) explores the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter.
The Devastating Game (Beverly) examines the psychological and emotional complexities of sexual abuse.
For They Know Not (Aimee) chronicles a woman’s battle with heroin addiction.

What does Chukwu predict audiences will find in the first efforts from these writer/directors?

“Quality storytelling,” she says. “Authenticity and a realness. These stories are not autobiographical but they’re inspired by some real emotional moments. And I think what you’re going to see is how systemic obstacles and oppressions and abuses have intersected with some of the lives of some of the writers and directors in their stories. You’re going to see the intersection of these kinds of gendered oppressions and abuses that women and girls specifically navigate and can sometimes lead to their incarceration. You’ll see those in narratively interesting ways. Every film is different, but they’re powerfully — they’re technically well done.”

The work doesn’t stop there, though. Chukwu expects Pens to Pictures to become an annual program and has extended its reach with the help of the Wex through a local educational program aimed at budding young Columbus filmmakers.

10 Girls/10 Weeks offers weekly three-hour sessions to help girls explore a variety of filmmaking facets, ultimately aiming to empower them to tell their own stories with screenplays.

Participants will be recruited in partnership with local social service agencies and schools. Besides screenwriting classes, the program offers local and regional field trips to visit women filmmakers and a variety of college and university film programs.

You can catch two Pens to Pictures screenings on Wednesday, September 6.

Pens to Pictures will screen first at 3 p.m. and features a preview of the films as well as a conversation with Chukwu and two of the featured writer/directors—Jamie Ochs and Beverly Fears.

The 7 p.m. program includes a screening of a documentary short chronicling the inaugural year of Pens to Pictures, as well as a panel discussion featuring Chukwu and a number of other experts covering issues facing incarcerated women today.

Between screenings, from 5 to 7 p.m., Wex will host a Take Action: Networking and Resources session. Contacts from non-profit and advocacy organizations concerning mass incarceration will be on-hand.

For more information and to RSVP to the free event, visit wexarts.org

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her podcasts THE SCREENING ROOM and FRIGHT CLUB.

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