Seattle-based filmmaker, Heather Dew Oaksen received an Individual Artist Projects award in support of the of Minor Differences, a documentary about growing up behind bars. In this guest blog post, she shares her motivation to begin this film, and a little bit about her journey to its completion.
I never intended to make a film that would take 18 years to complete. I did not expect to visit prisons throughout this country or to learn that mass incarceration of kids is a terrible crime against youth and does not work.
Over the years, I’ve made many films and video installations that aim to give “voice” to sub-groups within American culture creating stories that give visibility to their identity and concerns and formally function within communities in unexpected ways. Despite this experience, nothing prepared me for an event that would change my life forever.
In 1994 a student was shot and killed standing outside Seattle’s Ballard High School waiting for the bus. The community was shaken. Like others, I asked myself, “I’m an artist and a mother…what can I do to change what is going on?”
Opportunity knocked in the form of an invitation to go to Green Hill School, a maximum security prison for minors. My plan was simply to teach inmates video production. I also thought I’d conduct interviews and do a film of my own.
The 10 boys in my class were ages 16 to 19. They entered the justice system at as early as 10 or 12 and it wasn’t more than a few years later that all but one were sentenced to prison. Most had committed serious crimes. Some also battled hard-core addictions. I saw plenty of gang tattoos and bravado but when I filmed these kids talking about their childhoods …I realized there were only minor differences between them and my own son who was then 15. I anticipated following the boys for 3 more years after their release from Green Hill, but once I got to know them, I cared about them, and I couldn’t walk away.
In 1999, “video portraits” of my students were screened as evening window installations in two locations; 911 Media Art Center and Tacoma’s Commencement Gallery. I wanted to move beyond pure documentation to engage in a deeper consideration of content made possible through the use of aesthetic tools and form.
Over the next 15 years I continued to record their stories. I watched their situations become so dire… while prison conditions grew ever more draconian. I could no longer remain silent. By 2008, the internet provided the means to effectively communicate their experience to others, and essential financial support from 4Culture, the Flintridge Foundation, the Hayward Foundation, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, and Individual patrons made production of the film possible.
Many of us have never come in contact with a felon. I hadn’t. I found that the stereotypes just did not fit, and the labels needed a human face. MINOR DIFFERENCES follows five of the original ten offenders on their journey from adolescence to manhood, and challenges the viewer to see them and their circumstances in new ways.
– Heather Dew Oaksen
You may visit www.minordifferences.com to view the trailer and discover other elements of the multi-platform project.