Sunday, December 03, 2006

[Movie Review] Songbirds, a Musical Documentary about Women in Prison

Songbirds, a film by Brian Hill
lyrics by Simon Armitage, music by Simon Boswell
UK / 2005 / Betacam / 62 min / english
Contact: Sue Collins, Century Films, Studio 32, Clink Street Studios, 1 Clink Street, Londres SE19DG Angleterre. T: +44-207-378-6106 F: +44-207-407-6711 | |

i saw Songbirds somewhat by accident. It was on a double-bill with Cottonland, a film about drug addiction in Cape Breton Island. Cottonland was so good that i would have left the theatre right away to gather my thoughts and write a review, but i had bumped into friends and so i stayed to hang out with them for the second feature – and i was glad i did.

Songbirds is a documentary about women who are in prison. Not about “women in prison” – with the exception of a few incongruous discussions of lesbianism and masturbation there is nothing about prison life here – but about the lives and experiences of the women who end up incarcerated.

So this is about what happened before getting locked up, and it’s pretty horrific. Almost all of the women featured in Songbirds are survivors of male violence, including rape at the hands of strangers, husbands and fathers. With the exception of Theresa – the only obviously middle class woman interviewed, and tellingly the only one who committed a serious violent crime (manslaughter) and who was nevertheless getting out soon – male violence forms a backdrop from which it is almost impossible to separate their current imprisonment.

There is Mary, who is 35 and has been in and out of prison since age 15, when her own mother turned her in for having drugs in the home. As she explains it, her mother wanted to scare her, but never imagined she’d actually get locked up. Today, she has been in and out of prison for all but one of the past twenty years. At one point she mentions that she has been raped five times, at another she talks about her child being placed in care. We see scars up and down her arms from slashing.

Another woman, Sam, had a father who beat and raped both her mother and herself. When as an adult she saw her child beaten by her partner she found herself unable to intervene, so she brought him to school, hoping that the teacher would see the bruises and notify children’s services. They did, but with unforeseen consequences: her kids were taken away from her. This led to her marriage to an abusive well-to-do man, in a desperate (and unsuccessful) ploy to win custody back by showing that she had “gotten her life together.” She ended up in prison after setting his house on fire after he tried to coerce her into having sex with him.

Most of this film introduces us to other women with similar stories. In and of itself, i think this makes Songbirds well worth watching, and these interviews remind us that traditionally prison is not the main institution of patriarchal control.

As former political prisoner Susan Saxe explained in Gay Community News back in 1987:

My own experience among women in prison tells me, as numerous studies and observations of others have shown, that an overwhelming majority of incarcerated women began as victims of child abuse. What differentiates them from all the rest of the abused women who do not go to jail? Not much, except that like the battered women who finally turn on their attackers, they sometimes fought back. They rebelled against their abusers, became throw-away or run-away children, were jailed, or were placed in institutions by parents who saw them as “crazy” or “delinquent.”

Again, the message is the same: submit to abuse in private by a parent, husband or boyfriend, or fall prey to abuse by strangers – the pimps and pushers on the street or the social workers, wardens, officers and attendants in the prisons, mental hospitals and detention centers. (Susan Saxe, Telling Someone reprinted in Cages of Steel: The Politics of Imprisonment in the United States, Maisonneuve Press, Washington DC 1992)

Historically, for more “privileged” women the father and then husband was supposed to be able to play the role of jailor; she was in his custody, and the State was simply a last line of patriarchal defense if these more personal and informal mechanisms of control were somehow breached. The situation was more complicated for working class and poor women, and women from oppressed nations, but informal mechanisms of control were still far more important here than they were for men.

Today still, this history of informal male control means that for many women there is little freedom to be found on either side of the prison walls. This is the jarring fact alluded to by one woman after another in Songbirds, who explain that life “on the outside” is in many ways worst than life behind bars. Mary explains quite matter-of-factly that she got herself caught on purpose last time, just so that she could go back to her “home” behind bars. Sam described prison as a time out from the hell her life had become with her “successful” abusive husband. In a statement that really spoke to the fact that as a survivor she is both stronger and more “free” than many, she explains that if she doesn’t like things when released, she’ll just come back. “You can do that? Just choose to come back here?” asks the director… “Sure, I’ll just get a gun and shoot a few perverts. I could do that no problem,” she answers. And i’m sure she was not kidding…

Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur noted this very same phenomenon when she was being held at Rikers’ Prison in 1978. As she wrote in her essay Women In Prison: How It Is With Us:

For many, prison is not that much different from the street. It is, for some, a place to rest and recuperate. For the prostitute prison is a vacation from turning tricks in the rain and snow. A vacation from brutal pimps. Prison for the addict is a place to get clean, get medical work done and gain weight. Often, when the habit becomes too expensive, the addict gets herself busted, (usually subconsciously) so she can get back in shape, leave with a clean system ready to start all over again. One woman claims that for a month or two every year she either goes jail or to the crazy house to get away from her husband.

For many the cells are not much different from the tenements, the shooting galleries and the welfare hotels they live in on the street. Sick call is no different from the clinic or the hospital emergency room. The fights are the same except they are less dangerous. The police are the same. The poverty is the same. The alienation is the same. The racism is the same. The sexism is the same. The drugs are the same and the system is the same.

i am also reminded of the words of former political prisoner Bo Brown, who in the movie 3 Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation explains that “Prisons are just a microcosm of this [the outside]. This is just minimum security and it’s prettier you know, it’s green and lovely and we have more choices about where we go and what we eat and who we do things with, but the same things operate.”

There is no illusion here about prison playing a positive or therapeutic role. Just some stone cold realism and honesty about the extent to which you don’t have to be in prison to be imprisoned.

A truth which of course has more or less reality depending  on your class, nation, race, age… and most definitely your gender.

Songbirds would have been more on the mark had its director Brian Hill heard the words of these former political prisoners, who all analyze prison as an extension of other mechanisms of control. Unfortunately Hill seems to paint it as some kind of benevolent alternative. The words “country club” almost come to mind... so much so that i can’t help but see this as a bias, a desire to frame prisons (and, more broadly, the State) in a positive light. But then i also appreciate what he has said, that “it’s an awful indictment of any society that some people prefer to be in prison than out.”


A film about women who have survived abuse is something of a long-shot in terms of the “public at large.” In real life women often have their very survival held against them; to have been a “victim” is to be dehumanized, and makes one less interesting than the “heroic” fantasy-figures Hollywood preps us to admire. Women who have survived male violence are often considered something of a social eyesore. The capitalist patriarchy trains us to mistake their battle-scars for weakness, their virtues for vices.

Much the same for prisoners – to be locked up is to be considered a “loser,” and the eyes glaze over as people tell their stories of how they ended up behind bars. Living in a capitalist society, infected with its shallow individualism, our minds acquire an orientation by which we focus on the trivial and ignore the very facts we should be paying most attention to. So the million and one details of how people end up faced with choosing between imperfect options, each of which brings them further from where they want to be, most often alienate the viewing public. While they should in fact be startling to us, angering us, waking us up to the fact that something is not right in this world.

Or at least that’s my experience of how many people (the kind of people who think of prison as a place they could never end up) react to this kind of story.

Which is where the music comes in.

After being interviewed by director Brian Hill, these women had their words taken to poet Simon Armitage, who composed songs based on their stories. The women were given singing lessons, and professional quality video editors, and we see them perform these songs throughout the movie. So you have women telling these gut-wrenching stories of their lives before prison – the lowest common denominator being rape and battery from men, and the use of drugs to dull the pain – interspersed with these moving songs they’re singing about the very stories they have just told.

To say that this format is effective would be a major understatement.

Music – which is really just poetry with a tune – is capable of communicating truths in a way that a simple account of the facts cannot. Perhaps in the same way that expressionism or surrealism provide more accurate representations of certain relationships and dynamics than realism does. Where people have internalized the system’s lies and acquired this capitalist knack of blaming the victim and celebrating the bully… music and poetry become ways to catch people off guard, to outflank our own subconscious complicity with repression.

Or as Songbirds director Brian Hill explained to CBC’s Rachel Giese:

if you’re dealing with people who are marginalized and people who have committed crimes, no matter how liberal you are and how sympathetic, i think there’s a tendency to define people by what they’ve done: she’s a crackhead, or she’s a prostitute. It stops us from seeing anything else about them. If you get people singing, they’re actually pretty vulnerable. It gives them another dimension: this is a person who has talent, creativity and is brave enough to stand up and do this.

[…] The women were much more involved in the process than in a traditional documentary. They okayed all the lyrics and had a sense of ownership over the project. i do think the women are magnified. The music does give them an extra dimension. Take Maggie, for instance, the Irish traveller in the film, who sings a country and western song and then a lullaby for her children who’ve been taken into care. Maggie is a crackhead. She is a bogus caller – i don’t know if you know that expression in Canada, but it’s a person who knocks on the doors of elderly people and then invites themselves in and robs them. It’s horrible what Maggie does. But she’s something else, too. She’s a mother who grieves for her children. And she’s someone with talent. She can really sing. And that’s the truth about Maggie. She’s all of those things.


While Songbirds is a very moving and well done film, a thorough look at women in prison it is not.

As i already mentioned, there is no real discussion of life in prison. The violence and oppression that Hill shows us is purely intimate and interpersonal. The violence these women have endured is at the hands of “their men,” and hardly a word is said about other agents of oppression. If anything, the State appears as a benevolent actor.

i don’t want to exaggerate this criticism. These women are saying that in their lives it is their fathers and boyfriends and husbands who have been their oppressors, not the local cops or capitalists, and we should listen to this and mull it over and if this shocks you then you should rework your theories to take this into account. It doesn’t mean we should stop being anti-cop or anti-capitalist, just that we should not blinker ourselves to the fact that this may not be enough, may in fact cover up the “primary contradiction” in many women’s lives.

But we know that in real life many women are abused by an alliance of intimate and impersonal oppressors. This is the point so well made by the three women former political prisoners i quoted above. As Bo Brown, Susan Saxe and Assata Shakur each noted independently, the cops and courts and prisons are not an alternative to patriarchal oppression, just a different expression of it. An extension of oppression on “the outside.” When they do occur, collective responses to male violence are hindered if not simply repressed by the State. And finally, just as many men take advantage of the informal power they enjoy in intimate relationships to abuse and exploit women, so also do many men take advantage of the opportunity offered by their formal class position and relationship to the State – as bosses and managers and cops and social workers and prison guards too – to do the same.

Songbirds came out in 2005, the year that an increasing rate of suicides in women’s prisons in the UK finally crested. The preceding several years had seen a constant increase in the numbers of incarcerated women killing themselves – and for every woman who succeeded many many others would make the attempt. The widespread self-violence in women’s prisons in grim testimony to the fact that these are not “nice places” the State maintains – and the fact that the wave subsided when it did is proof of a direct correlation between repressive sentencing, overcrowding, and an unsafe environment. (2005, the first year the suicide rate decreased, was also the first year that the number of women in prison in the UK decreased.)

All of which is missing from Songbirds.

Viewers may also come away with a distorted idea of how much women in prison may or may not have in common. There is a national divide here which speaks volumes about capitalism and imperialism, but which is glossed over, its true import covered up.

Songbirds introduces several “traditional” white prisoners, four of whom are English and one Irish, each of whom has their own song and their own in-depth interview in which they discuss their life herstories. We are also introduced to many foreign women, some of whom are serving very long sentences, who were caught trying to smuggle drugs into the country. The interviews with these foreign women are much more superficial, and rather than each singing their own song, they all do one musical number together. What's more, unlike the citizen-women whose songs recount their lives and what led them to finally break the law, the foreign women's song only deals with the actual crime of drug smuggling itself. Hill gives a quick overview of how these women end up working as drug “mules” perhaps, but he chooses not to provide anywhere near the same degree of detail or focus as provided the other prisoners.

This emphasis on British citizens blurs several facts. To gloss over the “drug mules” is to gloss over one of the most important new elements in women’s imprisonment, for more than anything else it is the incarceration of female drug couriers which lies behind Britain’s skyrocketing women’s prison population. One in five woman prisoners in Britain today are foreign nationals, and half of these are from Jamaica. So that Afro-Caribbean women, only 1% of the general British population, account for 24% of women in prison in Britain today.

That these women’s predicament is also a result of men and male violence is documented in the film – but completely absent are the other (fairly obvious) factors that push Third World women to accept this dangerous work.

To flesh out this picture we can turn to feminist anti-prison activist and scholar Julia Sudbury, who has written about precisely this phenomenon:

Between 1980 and 1989, Edward Seaga’s conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JPL) pursued the ‘Washington Consensus’ model of neo-liberal economic reforms, privatizing state-owned companies and public utilities, scaling back local government services, introducing user fees for education and health care, and obliterating an already weak social safety net. Although People’s National Party candidate and former socialist Michael Manley was reelected in 1989, Manley and his successor J.P. Patterson have continued the economic path established by Seaga and his powerful international backers. These policies have led to layoffs of public service employees, many of them women, a reduction in social service provision, and dramatic increases in the cost of basic necessities. The impact on poor women has been particularly harsh because traditional gender roles burden women with the responsibility of caring for children and sick or elderly relatives. When the state sheds its role in providing social support and public infrastructure, poor women fill the vacuum. (Julia Sudbury, “Mules,” “Yardies,” and Other Folk Devils, in Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison-Industrial Complex, Routledge, New York, London 2005)

Sudbury notes that these women, pauperized by neo-liberalism, are the “exploited, poorly remunerated, and ultimately disposable workers of the global drug industry” – making the drug trade no different from other sectors of global capitalism, in which all manner of mechanisms both formal and informal concentrate the harshest levels of exploitation on to the female proletariat.

To say this, and to say that this is an important factor in women’s imprisonment even in countries like Britain, is not to deny the importance of “intimate” male violence, but simply to insist on telling the whole story, which is that there are different ways in which patriarchal oppression plays out for different women. Nation-class joins gender-class as a factor that can lead a woman through the prison gates.

An entire film could be devoted to the super-exploitation of women by the illegal drug sector, and their scapegoating by “tough on drugs” politicians, and i don’t want to fault Hill for not having chosen to make that documentary. But given the fact that the incarceration of foreign women for drug offenses is such an important factor in women’s prisons in Britain, and ever-increasingly so, it comes off as almost offensive that all of these women got such (comparatively) superficial treatment. (Not to mention the fact that their musical number was almost upbeat in a goofy kind of way.)

Despite these shortcomings, Songbirds remains a truly amazing movie, in both content and form. The “musical documentary” aspect, which had turned me off when i read the description (sounded awful corny, you know) makes this film a truly powerful experience, allowing the women to express far more than a dry interview format would. So much so that i left the cinema in a daze, blown away by what i had seen and heard, and it was only much later that i realized that fine as it was, it could have been even more.

Still, a real treat for a movie i initially had no plans on seeing…

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