10.07.2019

‘The Art of Incarceration’ tells a concerning story close to home

The Art of Incarceration
Words by Augustus Welby

Premiering as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, The Art of Incarceration focuses on the artistic explorations of Indigenous inmates at the Fulham Correctional Centre in Eastern Victoria.

Conceived and directed by local filmmaker Alex Siddons, The Art of Incarceration engages directly with the prisoners as they seek cultural identity and healing via creativity. Specifically, the action revolves around preparations for the Confined exhibition, an annual initiative facilitated by the arts program provider, The Torch.

“The Torch is a not for profit organisation that runs arts programs for Indigenous prisoners and ex-offenders within the Victorian prison system,” says Siddons.

The concept for The Art of Incarceration sprouted from his compassion for the Indigenous Australian population as well as a moral and philosophical interest in incarceration and criminology.

“My narrative-driven documentary both analyses and humanises the over-representation of Indigenous Australians within the prison system, while seeking answers and striving toward solutions,” he says. “In many ways I also see the film as a tribute to the incredible strength and potential of incarcerated First Nations people.”

A significant moment in the development of the project came when Siddons met the former prisoner, Robby Wirramanda, just months after his release from prison. The Torch program had reconnected Wirramanda with his passion for art while incarcerated. Siddons then accompanied Wirramanda to a Torch exhibition at the Melbourne Museum.

“I was intrigued by his journey and connected instantly with his three sons, Jackson, Hickson and Grayson Wirramanda,” Siddons says. “At that point, in 2016, [The Torch] was quite a small under-resourced organisation, but the beauty of the artwork and the pride that the artists showed at the exhibition stayed with me.”

Along with shining a spotlight on the artistic undertakings of prisoners and ex-offenders, Siddons’ film intends to bring attention to the mass incarceration of Indigenous Australians, which is just one of the ongoing effects of colonisation.   

“As a nation we urgently need to address the over-representation of Indigenous Australians within our prison system,” Siddons says. “It is a human rights crisis and a deeply tragic narrative that leads from one generation to the next. As the film clearly states, disconnection from culture and identity and significant gaps in employment, education and health are major contributing factors to the over-representation of Indigenous Australians within the prison system.”

The film offers a human complement to these stark statistical realities, aligning viewers with the perspective of the prisoners and former inmates.

“This character-driven approach demystifies and humanises the subjects in the film while providing great insight into The Torch’s inspiring Statewide Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community Program,” Siddons says.

The Statewide Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community Program isn’t just inspiring, but also an example of the sorts of progressive measures that can be effective in empowering Indigenous inmates and reducing the likelihood of re-offending.

“In 2016, after 40 years of advocacy from the Victorian Indigenous community, government policy was changed to allow Indigenous inmates in Victoria to sell their artwork through The Torch,” Siddons says. “100 per cent of the money goes back to the artists, held in trust until they are released. This enables artists to transcend their cycles of incarceration in a very purposeful and culturally affirming manner.”

The Art of Incarceration should go some way towards making this fact plain for audiences and the wider community. The fact that the premiere has already sold out illustrates the public’s interest in this issue.

“It’s a hugely inspiring and insightful story and I think anyone can take something from it. Seeing the lasting effect that the films have been having during the test-screenings that we’ve conducted is very encouraging.”

The Art of Incarceration premieres at Cinema Nova as part of Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on Sunday July 28 (sold out) and Wednesday July 31 (encore screening). Grab your ticks via the Cinema Nova website.