By Hannah Spaar
In Herman’s House, Herman Wallace owns little more than his voice and a dream.
Wallace is one of more than 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in the United States and out of all of them, has spent the most time there. It is Wallace’s 40th year in solitary confinement at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. This has gone unbroken except for an 8-month stint in a dormitory area which is the time documented in the film Herman’s House.
This film follows a New York artist named Jackie Sumell as she developes her art exhibit “The House that Herman Built.” She then attempts to find land in New Orleans to build Wallace’s dream house as more than just the model used in her exhibit.
Lisa Vallencia-Svensonn, the film’s producer, says during the Q&A after the film that it is a movie about a dream.
Herman’s House also delves into solitary confinement as a policy and touches on wider problems with the justice system. It goes through Wallace’s history and shows that Wallace might have been wrongfully convicted of murder. In one of the most poignant remarks in the film, Sumell says that her film work is driven by equal parts love and anger.
The film’s director Angad Bhalla said he realized early on that the dream house would not be built, at least not in Wallace’s time frame. Therefore, setting up an arc and compensating for the lack of access to Wallace were his two largest obstacles. Bhalla was only able to receive 15-minute phone calls from Wallace in prison, but they were not daily or scheduled.
Despite this, other visuals were handled wonderfully. Archival footage from the world before Wallace was incarcerated in the ’70s is shown generated onto the walls of the wooden replica of his six-by-nine foot prison cell from “The House that Herman Built.” Scenery is sometimes used as well, a mixture of inside and outside that shows just how different Wallace’s life is inside his prison cell.
Homes, and the roles they play, were prominent throughout the documentary. Wallace’s dream house obviously played a large role. They plan it as a community center for children while he is in prison. Wallace’s sister Vickie takes Sumell to the their childhood home in New Orleans. Sumell returns to her own childhood home during the film. Her new house in New Orleans is shown at the end. It is a beautiful home in a run-down neighborhood.
At the end of the movie, as the audience sees an aerial shot of Louisiana State Penitentiary for the first time, an instrumental version of “Over the Rainbow” plays. They are reminded that there really is no place like home.
Overall, it is a well-done film that asks tough questions of all parties and includes striking cinematography and two very headstrong, enjoyable characters. Although it loses its strong pace halfway through and the circumstances frustratingly circle back to the beginning by the end, the film convincingly portrays the real struggle of a real man and real woman for an imaginary home.
Vox Rating: VVV
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