Documentary film program alumni Jeng-Tyng Hong and Matthew Claiborne, both class of 2013, spent their time at Columbia Journalism School working on a short documentary about the use of solitary confinement in New York prisons. They screened their film at the Catskill Mountains Film Festival and their characters use the film to raise awareness about fair treatment in prison.
We interviewed Jeng-Tyng about their film, The Ex-Periment, and what they learned during production.
Columbia Visuals: How did you find this story?
Jeng-Tyng Hong: Matthew Claiborne and I were in the same research and writing class. We set out to do a story about an artist’s exhibition on display in Soho; it was a mock jail cell. After speaking with the artist, who was exploring different types of confinement, we became intrigued with the topic. As we began to research the topic, we realized there was a group of activists, Jails Action Coalition (JAC), who wanted to eliminate the use of solitary confinement in New York City. So we attended one of their protests outside a Board of Corrections meeting.
What we really wanted was to find people who would be able to share their experiences in solitary with us and who were still undergoing the transition process. And really, all we had to do was ask. After the rally was over, a man approached us asking if we knew where JAC was and what we were doing there. He turned out to be just the person we were looking for, having just been released directly from solitary confinement to the streets of New York.
CV: What was the reporting process like?
JH: The reporting process was ongoing. It started out being a massive collection of information. We had no idea whether we wanted to focus on solitary confinement in prisons or in jails, in New York City or in New York State and we had one character, but would he be enough to carry the show? As we began to narrow our focus, our reporting became largely fact verification.
Fortunately for us, we teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union, who had just created a report called “Boxed In.” While we were wary of their reporting, since they were an advocacy group, we used the information they had gathered through hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests. This helped us verify the number of inmates placed in solitary confinement, the offenses they had committed and the demographics of the population. Jails and prisons are largely not as transparent as we would have liked, and thus these statistics/reports became very important.
After defining the larger problems and the state of incarceration in New York, we knew we had to fact check everything that our characters told us, including what they did that landed them in prison. This involved numerous visits to courthouses, in all five boroughs of New York City, as well as Westchester and upstate New York. Every courthouse had different procedures for obtaining the information, but at the end of the day, we were able to verify most of what our characters had told us.
CV: How to did you conceptualize the visuals?
JH: Visuals were challenging not necessarily because events had happened in the past, but because we did not have much access to prisons or jails. So, with limited resources and time, we chose to do recreations. We used the same footage a few times throughout the film simply because we did not have very much of it; they were all slightly altered either via speed or color. We followed our characters everywhere and at any possible moment. It may have been excessive at times, but having a plethora of material was a blessing. We never knew what we would end up using until the very last day of edit.
CV: Were there any challenges in finding someone to share their story on camera?
JH: It is always challenging to have someone share every aspect of their lives on camera, and our characters, similarly, opened up only after about a year of us following them. As they got used to having us around, they forgot about the camera and the questions that were constantly being thrown at them. They enjoyed having us around and would text or call us with updates. Another challenge that we faced was, as they were being media-trained by a team of lawyers around them, they started spewing out statistics and recited statements. Since we had met them before the media training we knew when to turn the camera off, and we told them that we did not need the pre-rehearsed ideology.
Jen talks about meeting Five:
CV: Your main characters are Five and Yvette. What made them good characters?
JH: Five and Yvette were good characters because they had seemingly different, yet commonplace, experiences behind bars. Both had character flaws, landing them in prison in the first place, which they admitted to. But they also went through trying times to become the people that they are. They are united by their commitment in changing the corrections system in New York and elsewhere and as such, they wanted others to know about their experiences.
CV: What did you learn while producing your documentary?
JH: As student documentary filmmakers, we had constraints that forced us to be resourceful, such as as using editing techniques to create recreations and exploring our surroundings to create appropriate sets.
There is a certain relationship that you develop with your characters than can never be attained through the recitation of producing a daily news spot. But few have the luxury of time and money in waiting more than a year for a story to develop. And truth be told, our documentary would have been even better if we had a few more months of production. The process of producing a documentary is a labor of love.