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JUNE 2005

Producer Victor Bhuler

Education Behind Bars: Part II of a Series
Rikers High: A Filmmaker’s View of Prison Education

By Gillian Granoff

“Making documentaries puts me in the enviable position of being able to explore the world and be in places where you wouldn’t ordinarily be; that’s the gift they give to you.”

Among the winning documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival this year was Rikers High a transformative story of the lives of young men going to school in prison. The film produced and directed by Victor Buhler, paints with striking realism and raw honesty a portrait of three inmates who attend the Austin MacCormack Island Academy at Rikers Island.

The Austin MacCormack Island Academy is a school that is accredited by the New York City Department of Education and offers its 2000 students, classes towards a high school diploma (GED), courses in poetry, art, test preparation and life skills. The school system is a virtual island unto itself, where teachers, guards and social workers are the only flickers of inspiration and hope amid the dark, barren walls of the prison.  The school has its own barbershop where inmates learn to cut hair and practice their skill on other students. The vocational skills they receive will hopefully translate while the prisoners learn vital skills needed to help them relate to their peers without violence. The boys sleep in close quarters with others with only a cot and a small cabinet to store their things.

The film was produced by Victor Buhler, Jean-Michel Dissard, and Bonnie Strauss and co-produced by Althea Wasow. Victor Buhler, who conceptualized the project, is a 33-year-old seasoned documentary filmmaker and serves as both director and producer on the film. Buhler cultivated a love for filmmaking and a desire to capture the stories of adolescents at risk on film while an undergraduate at Harvard. A native of England, Victor says, his love and admiration for his mother, a retired special education teacher, influenced his calling. He produced his first film while still a Harvard student. In the film, he documents the lives of adolescents in a residential treatment center over the course of 6 months. The film’s content and style bare striking similarities to Rikers High. Buhler says that he wanted to get involved with a volunteer project, teaching film to students, to get involved in the real world. “I was hoping to volunteer my time teaching film to students in school.” During his research, Buhler came upon a listing for the “Island Academy” on the Board of Education’s website. “I got in touch with the school principal.” What he uncovered was a school behind bars, located securely within the walls of Rikers Island, a maximum-security prison.

With his curiosity and interest piqued, Buhler set out to gain access to the prison facilities. He visited and began talking with students in the Academy. For a year he visited prisoners without a camera, getting to know the prisoners on a personal level and familiarizing himself with their routines. It was Buhler’s persistence, determination and commitment to make the film that finally paid off two years later, when he successfully received permission to bring cameras within the walls of the school. Despite being $30,000 in debt, he persevered and won the support of Showtime Networks as producer of the film.

Rikers High, the 9O-minute documentary, examines the lives of three students in the Academy.

The first is William Santiago, an eighteen-year-old aspiring rapper with a history of petty crime and gang involvement. He has not spent more than four months out of prison since he was twelve and is back again for armed robbery, after holding up a woman with a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun. Teachers at Rikers High struggle to help him channel his sharp thinking skills and gift for rap into his schoolwork, to no avail. He is released from Rikers without a diploma and returns to the news that his girlfriend is pregnant. In the final scenes, we see him struggle to fill out a job application with very little skills and education.

The second character, Andre Blandon, is about to turn nineteen and serving time for setting his aunt’s car on fire to claim the insurance. He has a history of intense depression and running away from home. His struggle to cope with a domineering father is compounded by news he receives while in prison that his younger brother is following the same path. The news seems to overshadow his success at the Academy where he has acquired his GED and is cultivating his natural talent as a cartoonist. He dreams of creating his own comic books while he is transferred to an adult faculty to serve out the remainder of his sentence

Shawn Johnson, the Valedictorian of Rikers High, is the great hope of the Academy. He is serving time for robbery. Soft spoken, brilliant, and embarrassed by being considered a coward, he reacts to the rejection of classmates by robbing two groups of teenagers at gunpoint. At the Academy he flourishes academically and uses his gift for poetry and for self-expression to inspire others to reach their true potential. Shawn delivers a touching, articulate valedictorian speech at graduation, to the roaring applause of his peers.

The film opens with a teacher and student in the academy in a discussion of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The teacher encourages the student and the viewers to see the parallels between the perceptions of Frankenstein as a monster and how society demonizes criminals. He encourages Rodriguez to recognize the anger it evokes in himself.

As we watch the stories of these young men unfold, and see them released, we can’t help but root for them and hope they can break the cycle of incarceration. The film’s strength is in its incredible access, and its ability to transport its audience into the scene. You really feel like you’re there, but Buhler urges us not to make the mistake of thinking that viewing the prison and being in prison are the same. This access is not simply a result of the proximity of the camera, but a result of intimate and open relationships between the director and the students. Buhler describes that his success in earning their trust was a delicate balance of listening and watching. “I think something different happens when you go repeatedly. Every time they would pose for the camera I would deliberately not film them. The more we got to know each other the more we got to the heart of the subject. Time has a huge way of breaking down walls.”

Buhler’s stylistic choice of keeping the film and its subject in the present tense adds to its impact. “I’ve always wanted to make films that show things in the present, as they are happening. I’ve always felt that narration in a film takes you away from the present tense. My aesthetic is to take the filmmaker out of the equation as much as possible. I was aiming to film things to relate to what that person was going through at that time.”

The absence of scripts and contrivance challenge the viewer to interpret and react to events in the film from his/her own point of view. Rikers High is an inspiring example of how films can break down stereotypes, motivate viewers and show how teachers and students are striving to make a difference in people’s lives.

Buhler states that “the ability of documentaries to change perceptions and raise awareness is what he finds most rewarding about the profession. I hope that people ask questions, formulate their own opinions and get involved. I wanted the film to leave the viewer asking questions, simply because the answers are wide ranging.”

Buhler transforms the criminals from threatening, Frankenstein, into human beings with their own struggles of conscience, dimension and depth. The lines and boundaries begin to dissolve. By graduation, the viewer becomes so immersed in the celebration, that it becomes easy to forget these graduates are in prison,

“I’ve seen a lot of films about jail that portray the inmates as animalistic and disturbing to interact with. I think the aggressive personalities that many inmates adopt are survival mechanisms for them in jail and on the street. I was determined not to be scared of them.”

“The Answer to the Riddle”

Victor does not offer easy answers to what he refers to as the “riddle” of recidivism, other than to raise awareness to the flawed nature of the prison culture. “Spending more time there, I feel very hopeless about the future of these kids. I do not know the answer to this riddle. Society at large does not provide any kind of opportunities or outlets. It’s very easy for these guys to go back to jail. When they leave, they have a criminal record. The enticement to sell drugs and continue with their old life is overpowering and is really a societal issue. It is illuminating and disheartening.”

From his mother Diana Griffin-Strauss, a former special education teacher, Buhler inherited an innate respect for teachers and an implicit understanding of the frustration of having a talented student who squanders his potential. After making the film, Buhler is left with no simple answers on how to solve the cycle of incarceration and recidivism. The U.S imprisons a fifth of the world’s prisoners, and 8 out of 10 are rearrested within a year, although they do not necessarily return to prison. With such a high rate of recidivism, Victor Buhler acknowledges it’s easy to be hopeless about the possibility of imagining a better life for these prisoners through rehabilitation. “Certainly these guys do commit crimes; however, our fetish with building prisons has a short term gain but creates a larger problem when these guys go to prison and make no real contribution to society.”#

Rikers High debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and will air at Showtime networks and France 2. It is a stunning example of how filmmaking can generate dialogue on a significant policy issue.



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