Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) will one day hopefully be as obsolete as pillories, bilboes, brands and branks. Until then, the United States remains the only country in the world that allows children, some as young as 13, to be incarcerated until death without hope of parole. Stepping into this ongoing calamity is Natural Life, Tirtza Even’s 2014 experimental video documentary that aired at the 2016 Currents New Media Festival. The documentary aims to hasten the day when juvenile life without parole will be universally banned.
Natural Life is Even’s third video project on youth incarceration. When she launched her Kickstarter campaign to finance post-production of Natural Life, she wrote that “41 states in the U.S. elect to enforce a sentence of life without parole on youth under the age of 18.” Now, 17 states have banned JLWOP, and five states ban life without parole for children in most cases. Even’s film focuses on Michigan, the state that has approximately 368 JLWOP prisoners, a number exceeded only by Pennsylvania, according to a January 2016 article in Mother Jones.
Even’s feature-length video depicts the lives of five juvenile prisoners, and affords them opportunity to tell something of their dehumanizing experiences as they age through the prison system. In one prisoner’s words, she entered prison “wearing a training bra” and is now “menopausal.” Another yearns for a son “to protect and love. And to love me.” But JLWOP mutes their biological clocks, reducing their urges to motherhood to a dream not only deferred, but denied.
Natural Life tells the worst possible story about the U.S. justice system and American justice in a way that is not only affecting but generative. Even’s main visual editing device is the split screen in which juxtapositions are used cinematically. Yet Natural Life’s aesthetic strategies resist the commonplace presentation of talking heads taking turns with their narration as if on a witness stand. Instead of just a cavalcade of lawyers, police officers, bureaucrats, prisoners’ family members, and victims’ families, the pairings offer context, contrast, relief, respite, reinforcement. They underscore the humanity of the film’s subjects as people who are confined all the time.
The documentary’s panoply of imagery transmits through the watcher’s senses. Images of leaves as ubiquitous nature transact with fences and gates as ubiquitous prison-life anomalies. Through repetition, the slot where food is passed to prisoners in solitary confinement is not just an aperture into a view of a cage, but a portal to compassion for the prisoner loneliness and deprivation the gesture underlines.
At the start of the film an animal tethered to a rope appears next to a view of a groomed horse loping into a barn. The rider who dismounts expertly is the twin sister of a brother who was murdered. An unlocked door swings open and shut in wind. The victim’s sister tells of the poverty and dysfunction with which her young life was saddled, before her twin’s murder made her burden even heavier.
Even considers scale and proportion in her storytelling that also advances her protest against this horrendous form of imprisonment for juvenile offenders that manifested in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s with the rise of the myth of the “super-predator” advanced by some criminologists, and described by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in his book Just Mercy. From page 159:
Sometimes expressly focusing on black and brown children, theorists suggested that America would soon be overcome by “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and “who have absolutely no respect for human life.” Panic from the impending crime wave expected from these “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless children” led almost every state to enact legislation that increased the exposure of children to adult prosecution.
No cohort of “super-predators” ever manifested, and the myth has been thoroughly debunked.
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