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Prison philosophy

INTERVIEW: director Silvia Kaiser. The Conquest of Inner Freedom illustrates what happens when the incarcerated meet the educated. One half of the directing team illuminates here AND at EXBlick on Mon, Dec 12 at Lichtblick Kino.

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You think prison life is boring? You’re wrong – at least as far as life in Berlin’s biggest goal in Tegel is concerned, where the authorities encourage a unique process of Socratic dialogue between prisoners. Silvia Kaiser and Aleksandra Kumorek spent one year filming what amounts to a course in (sometimes unwelcome) self-awareness as the men reflect on their crimes and their punishment. The Conquest of Inner Freedom takes a close and honest look at what makes the criminal mind tick. The result is food for thought for all of us: those in prison as well those that put them there. And that means us.

Catch The Conquest of Inner Freedom at this month’s EXBlicks (in cooperation with realeyz.tv) on December 12 at 20:00 with English subtitles at Lichtblick Kino. Both directors will be in attendance for a special Q&A afterwards.

We chatted with one half of the directing team, Silvia Kaiser, about the film and process here as well.

Is this a film for philosophy students, Socratic groupies or fans of post-rehab criminals?

As far as I’m concerned, a documentary is not comparable to a report made for TV. It’s not so much about purpose, more about empathy. You get on a raft and see where the waves take you. But we were clear on one point: we did not want to make a film for people interested in Socratic dialogue. We wanted to make a film depicting life in prison from the prisoners’ viewpoint …

So that the debates were more a means to an end?

Yes. And of course, the idea of philosophy in prison is a bit counter-intuitive. It’s not what people expect. Boxing in prison would be a more typical take on prison life.

The process of watching people watching each other (as one automatically does in prison) created a certain distance in the film. Did you feel that?

I’d agree with that insofar as the Socratic discussions helped the prisoners achieve distance to themselves and to others: a distance everybody needs for reflection. But we tried to show the prisoners from up close, from their own viewpoint and that is what people always comment on, the sense of intimacy that we achieved with these men.

How long did it take to film and to edit the material, to achieve this kind of intimacy and density?

We filmed all the discussions: 10 times, four hours with two cameras because we couldn’t be sure what was coming next, how interesting that might be. We spent one year editing. And that’s probably one reason why the prisoners appear as naturals in front of the camera. They got used to us, and relaxed.

Why the heavy use of voice over? The guys are lying on their beds or looking out of the window but their thoughts are not spoken directly into the camera but added from the off.

This was a stylistic issue. We had so many talking heads during the Socratic discussions that we felt the need for some contrast. We started by taping normal interviews with the men. During editing we decided that adding their thoughts as comments from “the off” actually created the impression that you are inside these guys’ heads. This is where prisoners spend a lot of time anyhow, because they just have so much time to think and reflect. We were astonished how reflective they were, even without the Socratic discussion. So creating the contrast worked very well—and also tied into the chronicle of prison life, the cells, the everyday life.

Has your own approach to the concept of inner freedom changed as a result of making this film?

I’ve become a fan of Socrates myself. But it’s more the “Know thyself” aspect of his work that I find important. What Gordon and Kai say at the end of the film: ‘Do I really want inner freedom or isn’t it better to feel part of life. Even if life restricts me, I want to be angry, happy, whatever.” Inner freedom can imply a lack of responsibility for others. Of course, it was meant as a provocation but there’s something to what he said, and it’s stayed with me.