LAFF 2007: Dancin' to the Jailhouse Doc

PRISON TOWN USA is the best movie I've seen at the festival so far, and the best documentary of this year so far.

Confession time: More often than not, we critics will favorably review a documentary that's kinda boring, if the subject matter is important enough. Even documentaries we like are a little boring sometimes. Rarely do we go to documentaries and think, "Tell me a good story."

But this one does, and it's never boring for a second. But that may be my biases -- I love prison movies, across the board, from the ones about action heroes fighting in prison, to documentaries about convicts who do rodeo.

The screening was sponsored by People for the American Way, and a spokesman beforehand urged us to call Senator DiFi and ask her to block some new awful Bush judicial appointee. But even if you like Bush and his appointees (no-one here at the fest does), don't be afraid of the movie. It's not an agitprop piece, except perhaps in very subtle ways.

What it is is the story of several residents of Susanville, California, a small town surrounded by four major prisons. Local businesses are dying -- some due in part to the prisons, but others were on the way out anyway -- and the prisons come in to take over the local economy, promising to buy local goods and services (a promise that sometimes has an unspoken statute of limitations, as we learn).

The principals here are:

-Lonnie, a just-released prisoner on probation, whose crime was stealing $40 worth of groceries to feed his kids. Trained as an airplane-painter (talk about specialized skills!) he struggles to find work, and has another baby on the way. My conservative side, which is admittedly very small, found me thinking, "Good lord, man, you had to steal to keep your kids from starving, and now you're having another? Condoms are cheaper than kids, dude!" Other than that, he's sympathetic, a good man on hard times.

-Mike the milkman, whose dairy business isn't what it used to be, and is at risk of losing his contract with the prison to a federal bureaucracy. He lobbies the town and local governments to keep this from happening.

-Gabe, a skilled deliveryman who trains as a prison guard because it's more lucrative than the job he has; and Dawayne, Gabe's less-competent friend who also wants to be a guard but has a fear of test-taking.

Interspersed between their stories are frightening statistics, like the one about how U.S. prison sentences are 5-12 times more punitive than those of other western nations, and that 1 in 10 kids in America has a parent on parole/probation/imprisoned. More pertinent to our characters -- the divorce rate among prison employees is 65-75%, and families of convicts usually break up within two years of release.

Fun detail: a poster in the guards' gym of convicts, and the slogan "They worked out today. Did you?"

It's a bit like Roger & Me without Michael Moore's narration, if you can imagine such a thing. It also doesn't advocate any particular solution. Are these people we see liberal, conservative, moderate? We don't know. Does it matter? Nope.

Codirectors Katie Galloway and Po Kutchins spent years living in the town and gaining local trust before they could shoot inside the prison, and finally enlisted the help of the Governator, who may be a hardass on crime but is also very friendly to filmmakers. They shot almost 400 hours of footage, but have kept it tight, the perfect length at 75 minutes.

At the end of our screening, a woman stood up and tearfully thanked them for highlighting the situation -- her boyfriend is in prison in Susanville, and she lives far away and can't afford to visit him much.

I should add that I usually hate post-film Q&As -- I like the movie to speak for itself. But this one I stayed for. I'm sure the DVD extras will be good when they happen, too.

It screens again tomorrow, 9:45 p.m., at the Landmark westside Pavilion. Go.

Now for something completely random...

On the festival shuttle bus maps they have posted, the "Green Line" shuttle route is represented by...a yellow line. Why?


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