Loretta Goff reviews Peader King’s documentary Yo Cambio that explores El Salvador’s prison system, which screened at the 60th Cork Film Festival.
With RTÉ as the new principle partner of the Cork Film Festival during a year where half of the programming consists of documentary screenings, it is fitting that Peader King’s Yo Cambio would see its world premiere here. Part of RTÉ’S 9th series of “What in the World?”, this documentary falls very much in line with the “Ideas” strand of the Festival, designed to provoke debate and raise awareness of global issues.
In Yo Cambio Peader King takes us inside El Salvador’s prison system, notorious for its violence. The director first became interested in the topic of prisons in 2002 while working on a film about the death sentence in Alabama. As the “reputations of prisons in Latin America are brutal, violent, overcrowded, […and] difficult to change”, he turned his focus there with an interest in seeing “how do you assert the rights of those who have been deprived of their liberty.” The documentary explains that El Salvador has one of the highest rates of murder in the world (many of which are violent deaths), largely as a result of serious economic inequality in the country which leads to exclusion. Meanwhile, the prisons cannot sustain the numbers of those arrested.
Through a series of interviews with both prison officials and those detained inside we learn about the reputation of these prisons and their poor conditions. One prisoner relates that “as soon as you entered you were told: you see nothing, you hear nothing, you say nothing.” Others had fears entering, knowing only of the gangs, massacres and violence. Though we do not see this violence (nor any victims of it), a series of startling shots do demonstrate the cramped conditions inside where many mattresses line the floor of a single room, personal items are stacked and hung wherever space can be found, and garbage overflows.
However, the documentary offers hope as the focus shifts to El Salvador’s prison reform movement, Yo Cambio (or I Change) which began in 2010. The three main principles of this movement are to make amends, work, and create a better society. This has been implemented in the prisons through classes ranging from reading, writing and English to yoga and dance (some of which are even taught by other inmates), along with a crèche programme, and fishing and farming work designed to ease the transition back to life outside of the prison. Interviews with participants in the programme elucidate the variety of ways it has helped them.
Though prison officials mention the fact that there are two elements inside the prison—one open to the reform programme and one not—we are largely given a one-sided impression from those who do participate. Though this is somewhat unavoidable as partaking in the filming was voluntary, it is the one shortcoming of this documentary. It was surprising to learn afterwards that only about 5% of the prison population participates in Yo Cambio (a sense not given in the film). Ultimately, however, as we are told by one participant, “Yo Cambio is about wanting to change yourself”, and this documentary champions the rights of those inside prisons to be given the opportunity for this change.
Following the screening, a Q&A panel consisting of director Peader King, incoming Cork Prison Governor Patrick Dawson, Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust Deirdre Malone, and UCC Law Lecturer Fiona Donson was moderated by RTÉ’s Colm O’ Callaghan to shed further light on the issues raised in the documentary and discuss how they relate to Ireland.
Discussing the filming process, Peader King related that “one of the difficulties was the volatility of the prisons themselves.” Filming had to be pushed back, and was almost cancelled, due to movement on incarcerated gang leaders which created instability inside. Conditions were also set with prison officials in advance, including that no prisoners could be named in the documentary and that any child who was under the age of 12 months had to have their face blurred out. However, despite thinking his camera would be an impediment inside the prison, King said people got used to him being around and he is “always amazed how relaxed people are in front of cameras.”
Deirdre Malone pointed out that many of the issues raised in the documentary resonate with prisons in Ireland and explained that rather than “warehousing” problems in prisons we need to know effective responses to crime. She went on to say that “media values are at odds with criminal justice values.” The media often tends to report on the worst crimes to sell their stories, which leads the public to believe that crime rates are worse than they are. In fact, the statistics on crime are very complex, with Malone reporting that some have gone up while others went down. One statistic she gave was that 9,000 people were incarcerated in Ireland in 2014 for failing to pay court ordered fines.
Patrick Dawson discussed the drain on resources that it is to process these incarcerations, despite most of them being released soon after. He also explained that “communities need to understand how prisons work.” This is something Yo Cambio helps to do at a global level, and the panel, along with similar discussions, do in Ireland. Fiona Donson mirrored this sentiment, explaining that “these types of documentaries are needed to give insights into prisons”, and to show the public that not all prisoners are the same.
In addition to informing the wider community, Dawson noted the importance of seeing how community is built within the prison. He went on to discuss similar developments being made in Irish prisons, including the offering of classes and incentivised programmes designed to encourage good behaviour. He explained that the important thing is to know the people you are working with and adapt the services accordingly.
One sentiment that was mirrored by the entire panel was that “there is no one fix” to issues surrounding the prison system. Reform programmes are helpful and offer hope, particularly in dire situations such as the El Salvadorian prisons, but they are not the panacea. There are many social issues that also need to be addressed. However, documentaries on the subject and community discussion are a good place to begin tackling these.
Yo Cambio will also be shown in Cork Prison followed by a Q&A, and there are hopes to take it to other prisons around the country in order to extend the discussion to include those who are incarcerated. Meanwhile, the general public will be able to watch it on RTÉ on December 1st at 11:15pm.
Yo Cambio screened 8th November as part of the 60th Cork Film Festival (6 – 15 November 2015)