Who else but SBS could bring us a documentary about prisoners in Darwin’s Berrimah Correctional Centre told through song?
Prison Songs is billed as “Australia’s first musical documentary’ where the subjects express themselves through songs written by Casey Bennetto (Keating: The Musical) and Indigenous singer/songwriter Shellie Morris.
It is captivating, heartbreaking, uplifting and unique.
Watching prisoners singing and dancing in the unforgiving surrounds of the prison walls is inspiring stuff. Most of the male and female inmates are Indigenous, adding a poignancy to the documentary. The proportion of domestic violence, alcoholism and addiction in their stories is high.
Inmates break into hip hop, blues, country, reggae and gospel tunes as they sing about their backgrounds and their daily toil. There are solos, duos and group numbers performed in cells, workyards, laundries -musically giving us access to the personalities behind the prison cases.
The songs by Bennetto / Morris, presumably drafted through research and conversations with their subjects, draw upon satire to work against the bleak circumstance.
53 year old Phil tells us “The only place that saved me was the Berrimah Hilton. This is my home. When I’m in here I’m straight, I get my health back, I feel alive,” before giving us a tour of its ‘secure facilities, 24 hour reception and en-suite toilet.’
At the Berrimah Hilton
Leaving all your cares behind
At the Berrimah Hilton
And you never know who you’ll find
‘Lightly-skinned’ pair Max and Dale, both 27, rap about the irony of being caught between two ethnic worlds.
Black / White / Either / Or
Livin’ in the middle is a tug of war
Here / There / Brown / Fair
Livin’ in the middle is a cross to bear
20 year old Malcolm, serving 4 years, talks about his attraction to girls and the drive to impress them. But a song about his sweetheart takes a poetic turn. It’s not a female that most helps him to make it through the night.
I’m talkin’ bout alcohol
I never had a chance at all
I never had a start
You pour into my heart
And brighten up my day
Admittedly there is limited detail of the crimes each has committed (one is incarcerated for the killing of another person, but no mention of murder or manslaughter), however 42 year old Evangelical pastor Bernadine, widowed at 27 with 3 children, tells us drugs were found in her bags by Customs (it’s unclear if these were there via her hand).
God has a reason
God has a plan
A destiny meant for each woman and man
I know that he moves in mysterious ways
Give me the strength to get through these days
Bernadine is the strongest solo singer in Prison Songs, but charismatic Max, an articulate and smiling burly bloke will win your empathy. 28 year old Molly, recalling a domestic violence incident, also has a compelling story. They are several of the individuals profiled through frank monologues contrasted by joyous singing.
There is no narrator here, instead bare facts about the living conditions and Berrimah’s population are superimposed on the screen. Director Kelrick Martin allows cinematographer Torstein Dyrting to manoeuvre his camera through the bleak surrounds, as the sunlight seeps through the prison bars. Deftly applying slow-mo, out of focus shots and time lapse, this is as visually stark as its themes.
Prison Songs arguably has its roots in the UK docu-musical Feltham Sings (1992) in which teens at a Middlesex youth prison sang about life behind bars. The link connecting both is UK producer Brian Hill, who has produced the SBS series for Spearpoint Productions. Yet the Australian project sings with its own voice, largely due to the individuals cast and the unmistakeable Indigenous element. Coincidentally, Berrimah has since been closed as a prison but re-purposed as a youth detention centre.
Prison Songs is bursting with life, energy and despair, fused together with lyric and melody that draws you in. It’s the most creative use of musical storytelling since ABC’s Eternity -and that went on to win a Rose D’Or Award. Don’t miss it.
Prison Songs premieres 9:30pm Sunday on SBS ONE.