Categories : Festivals

27 Nov

Prison Valley spend 3 days in the heat of Amsterdam

It was the day before yesterday, in the middle of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, right in the centre of town. At the Tuschinski Theater, which was sold out for the occasion, and I don’t mind telling you we were scared stiff.

Tuesday evening was the world premiere of Prison Valley. Or, to be more precise, the first time we’d shown the first thirty minutes of the programme in public. On a big screen too, and our producer Alexandre Bachet had turned DJ for the evening, managing the whole caboodle with his little Mac. Another new thing was that the guys from Upian, the production company/web agency behind Prison Valley, had worked like crazy from Paris to make sure Prison Valley could be projected in its web form and almost its final navigation version.

Cinéma Tuschinski, Amsterdam

Tuschinski Theater, Amsterdam

We were scared stiff that it wouldn’t work.
That the connection would play up.
That the screening would be a cock-up.
That Amsterdam would see red.

Alexandre Brachet & Caspar Sonnen Le producteur et l’organisateur

Alexandre Brachet & Caspar Sonnen: the producer and the organiser.

One of us took a sip of beer, the others drained their wine glasses, and we went up to the front. And Caspar Sonnen, a really cool guy and MC for the evening ceremony, the heart and soul of the festival’s DocLab, opened proceedings. Later on, he posted the following on his Twitter page:

“The live screening of new webdoc by @abrachet @IDFADocLab rocked! pure cinema, great Q&A, nice party too. Look forward to the 2010 launch!”

“Did you think about this clash of freedoms?”

The film’s started. Then the lights went up again. Then the applause rains down. Then the questions. About the narration, about our choices, about the interactivity Prison Valley is based on, about the narrative with its fair share of bonuses, the road movie in Colorado, and the many forks in the road.


Philippe Brault and David Dufresne, writers and directors of Prison Valley

The a film student put up his hand:

“You’re dealing with the subject of imprisonment and depriving people of their freedom. And at the same time, you give us viewers unheard-of freedom. Did you think about this clash of freedoms?”

Philippe, my co-director, and I looked at each other. A bit embarrassed and yet quite touched. And we told the young man the truth:

“To be honest, no, we didn’t. In any case, not in those terms.”

At times like this, you feel like kissing everyone everywhere, starting with Amsterdam and its blonde bouncers, its Filipino Dutch women, its festival-goers on their way home, and the young Italians from or the team from who were both at the cinema. Everyone, absolutely everyone. Including you, my coffee shop friend.

La « time line » de Prison Valley

The timeline for Prison Valley

Then another hand went up. A woman. A New York lawyer. She’d cycled across America from prison to prison. One day, she reached the same godforsaken place we had – Cañon City, Colorado, with its 13 jails. Cañon City with Supermax, the prison to end all prisons, half underground, “the Alcatraz of the Rockies”. We had to pinch ourselves. It was as if the interactivity started here in Amsterdam, face to face. We asked if we could interview her. Philippe took her portrait, I took her email; that lawyer will definitely be in the film. The wonders of the Web.


Pitch au « Forum » de l’Idfa

Pitch at the IDFA ‘Forum’

The atmosphere at the Tuschinski Theater was really very different than that morning at the Forum. The Forum is a bit like the IDFA’s supermarket. You’ve got seven minutes to present your project and seven minutes Q&A with the commissioning editors of the best TV stations in the world. You sit facing three hundred people in serious surroundings with particular customs, a few grouches and some enthusiasts. The two moderators had had the good sense to warm up the audience with a gentle rap. At 9.30, it was Prison Valley’s turn. Up on the platform were Philippe, Alexandre (who was to DJ later) and the team from Arte (co-producer of the documentary), Marianne Lévy-Leblond and Joël Ronez.

As the festival newsletter put it the next day, “Most commissioning editors loved the interactivity of Prison Valley’s site” but some questioned whether the topic of the US prison system would interest European audiences. The BBC’s Nick Fraser went so far as to ask:

“Rather than going to the U.S., why didn’t you tackle the situation in the French banlieue for example?”

There are hundreds of reasons, Nick, one of them being that one of us has already made a film on the subject and, as you know, Nick, you never make the same film twice. Well you can, but it’d be a shame. But the main reason is that the aim of the type of web documentary we’re making  is to move beyond these old notions of borders.

Joël Ronez and Marianne Lévy-Leblond: the co-producers and broadcasters (

Joël Ronez and Marianne Lévy-Leblond: the co-producers and broadcasters (

As Joël Ronez summed it up later, the pitch was pretty tense. But a bit of tension makes for a good battle, right? Bring it on; bring on the battle to shake up conventions, a kind of Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, 2009 style. A few soldiers enlisted during the afternoon, European co-producers excited by the stakes and the challenge. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you posted.

“Fucking in Heaven” in Amsterdam

Late, late that evening, we did the same as in Sheffield. We ended up on the dance-floor – at the deceptively named Escape nightclub to be specific (we blush a bit at this report). No one felt at all like running away or leaving such a cool city as Amsterdam or heading off while the DJ was playing Fat Boy Slim again (who everybody knows is ‘fucking in heaven’). The only reason to leave is to carry on editing Prison Valley. We’re back at it today.

See you again soon for further adventures.

David Dufresne and Philippe Brault (photos)

P.S. To find out more about Prison Valley at the IDFA: