Directed by Angad Singh Bhalla. STC. 81 min. Opens Oct. 12 at Bloor Hot Docs.
The House that Herman Built—from which director Angad Singh Bhalla’s documentary gets its name—is actually an art project by Jackie Sumell. The New York–based artist’s ongoing correspondence with Herman Wallace, a prisoner who’s spent the better part of four decades in solitary confinement, led to her encouraging the inmate to design his dream home. For the installation, which has been shown in a dozen galleries worldwide, she pairs a 3-D model of his plans with a replica of his six-by-nine-foot cell in order to explore the effects of what she considers cruel and unusual punishment. While the project may seem exploitative, Herman acknowledges that both parties have an agenda: Jackie is making art to further her career, and Herman is using this exposure to further his cause.
The latter concern is what drives Bhalla’s film: Herman Wallace was already serving time in Louisiana’s Angola prison for a bank robbery when, in 1972, he was thrown in solitary after he and two other inmates were convicted of brutally murdering a prison guard. (That they were Black Panther supporters likely had something to do with the intensity of the sentence.) Consequently, his relationship with Jackie—which has evolved from correspondence to collaboration to a feverish campaign to free him from prison altogether—is conveyed here almost exclusively through telephone calls and letters.
And while that physical disconnect is a key element in understanding the isolation and alienation of both the prisoner and those who are trying to help him, it makes for a film that spends a tad too much time with Jackie and not enough contextualizing this particular form of punishment. Indeed, the film loses its way a bit during Jackie’s increasingly doomed search for a plot on which to build the actual house. It’s far more compelling to watch Jackie travel down the rabbit hole of her determination, where we see how personal even the most seemingly abstract activism can get.