Documentary Follows Sullivan County Inmates and Dartmouth Students

  • Malika, one of the central figures in "It's Criminal," a documentary by Norwich filmmaker Signe Taylor about the interaction between women incarcerated in Unity, N.H., and Dartmouth College students, reads in her cell. The film screens Saturday evening at 7 in the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction.

  • The cast of "It's Criminal," a documentary film by Signe Taylor in which female inmates at the Sullivan County House of Corrections and students at Dartmouth College write a play together.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, June 01, 2017

The documentary It’s Criminal begins with a class of Dartmouth College students listening intently as their American literature professor Ivy Schweitzer outlines what they can expect from “Prisoner, Women and Performance.”

The experiential-learning course will take the students into the Sullivan County Department of Corrections in Unity to work with women incarcerated there. The students’ faces are curious, intent, serious and, in some cases, apprehensive.

For all of these students, it will be the first time they have set foot inside a jail and the first time they have collaborated on projects with women convicted of such crimes as drug possession and sales. In turn, the women in the jail haven’t had much, if any, opportunity to talk to young college students about their own lives and aspirations.

With the guidance of Schweitzer and Pati Hernandez, an adjunct professor of women’s and gender studies at Dartmouth and a collaborator with Bread and Puppet Theater, the two groups, over the course of the 10-week class, will write a play that delves deeply into the profound inequities in the criminal justice system, as well as the experiences of the inmates that led them to a jail sentence.

It could be a recipe for failed communication, an exercise in confirming your biases, or an empty show of feel-good intentions. But it isn’t.

It’s Criminal: A Tale of Bridging the Divide, made by Norwich filmmaker Signe Taylor, will screen Saturday evening at 7 at the Barrette Center for the Arts as part of the annual White River Indie Film Festival.

The 80-minute film takes a hard look at the way class shapes people’s lives and their interactions with the American criminal justice system. One central point emerges: Addiction wrecks lives, regardless of where you fall on the socio-economic ladder. But it’s what happens to you when you enter the justice system that separates the haves from the have-nots.

While tools of education and psychological and financial support are widely available to people of means, the same doesn’t hold true for people from modest or impoverished backgrounds.

“People want to change. Nobody gets out and wants to go back. But you have to give them the tools to change. ... We’re spending so much money in this country on incarceration but how can you expect people to change without the programs?” Taylor said in a phone interview from her home in Norwich. Her previous documentary Circus Dreams (2011) won numerous awards on the American film festival circuit.

The documentary follows, in particular, two Dartmouth sophomores: Georgia has grown up in an affluent family in suburban New Jersey, while Thandar, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Burma, comes to realize that while her family has struggled, the Ivy League confers a mark of privilege.

The incarcerated women on whom Taylor focuses include Malika, a 35-year-old biracial woman from New Hampshire who has two children and has been incarcerated on drug charges. In contrast to some of the women, who are warier and very reluctant to tell their stories, Malika enters wholeheartedly into the writing and performing. She’s passionate, unafraid to confront people when she thinks they’re misreading or misjudging her and a prime driver of the narrative.

“Malika is just so charismatic. ...I knew she was going to be a main character,” Taylor said.

It’s Criminal had its premiere in March at the L.A. Women’s International Film Festival, and is an official selection of the Maine International Film Festival, which takes place this July in Waterville.

The way that the women, students and Schweitzer and Hernandez brought people together “really speaks to me,” Taylor said. “I feel like we’re living in a divided time. We’re more socially and economically divided. To work together to make a space to make connections: it’s a hard thing to do, but it’s one of the most important things we can do.”

Tickets can be purchased at wrif.org or during box office hours: today from 3 to 7 p.m; Friday, from 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Adult single tickets are $10; student tickets are $5.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.