Dir: Marc Evans. UK-Italy. 2007. 91mins.
Mumia himself remains behind bars and is unavailable to speak on camera. Instead, the central figure here is William Francome, a genial London-born ex-sociology student who was born on the day that Mumia was arrested. He travels around the US, speaking to Mumia's relatives, to lawyers, to musicians, to academics and to assorted political campaigners.
The documentary is already being aggressively marketed on MySpace and championed by Amnesty International. It features some illustrious names both behind and in front of the camera, among them actor Colin Firth (who is executive producer), and such interviewees as Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky, Mos Def, Snoop Dog and Steve Earle. The soundtrack features music from everybody from The Clash to Miles Davis as well as original songs by Snoop Dog. Mumia is an articulate and charismatic figure and the story Evans and Fancome tell about about him is fascinating. Talent agency Paradigm is handling US rights. Frank Mannion's London-based Swipe has international rights. All rights are available excluding Italy, where the film will be released by Fandango (one of its backers.)
Despite the trail-blazing example set by Michael Moore, Kevin Macdonald and co, most feature-docs remain a tough sell in the theatrical marketplace. It is telling that even Brett Morgen's Chicago 10 (which has both thematic and formal overlaps with Evans' film) has struggled to find buyers despite being backed by Participant and premiering in Sundance. Nonetheless, In Prison My Whole Life (which receives a joint world premiere at the London and Rome Festivals) boasts elements which will surely appeal to inventive distributors.
At times, the film feels a little didactic. There is a sense that the film-makers are, in Francome's own words, 'preaching to the converted'. Nonetheless, at its best, it has an urgency and formal inventiveness reminiscent of Errol Morris' Thin Blue Line. Evans and Francome, who co-wrote, skilfully broaden their frame of discussion. What at first appears to be a film about a single miscarriage of justice turns into a critique of authoritarianism, racism, capital punishment and police brutality in US society as a whole. Evans - an experienced director whose dramatic features include My Little Eye, Snow Cane and Trauma - adds a dynamism to the material that more traditional documentaries on similar subjects have often lacked. Meanwhile, Francome has a personable quality that you wouldn't necessarily find in a film narrated by an 'expert'.
What is intriguing is the connections the film-makers draw. There is always a reason for the links, even when they appear glib. For example, the decision to use Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit initially seems cliched, but when Francome interviews Robert Meeropol, the reason the music is there becomes clear. Meeropol, who met Mumia before his imprisonment, is the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed as spies 1953. Following their deaths, Robert was adopted by the songwriter Abel Meeropol, who wrote Strange Fruit for Holiday. The use of the grotesque (and very familiar) images of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib likewise seems heavy-handed, but then we learn that Charles Graner, one of the prison guards who oversaw the torture at Abu Ghraib, had worked at the Pennsylvania prison where Mumia is incarcerated.
The film chronicles some startling humans rights abuses in the US, ranging from FBI-sanctioned assassinations of Black Power leaders to the Philadelphia police dropping a bomb on a house occupied by counterculture group MOVE. (This resulted in the death of eleven people, five of them children.)
Francome made efforts to contact the friends and family of the murdered police officer Daniel Faulkner but was always rebuffed. However compelling the arguments for Mumia's innocence, however corrupt and racist the cops appear to be, the absence of testimony from Faulkner's supporters risks leaving the film unbalanced.
Still, the Mumia case allows the film-makers to raise more general questions about racial inequality and capital punishment. Steve Earle tells a horrific story about being called to witness the execution of a prisoner he was corresponding with. Meanwhile Alice Walker makes some trenchant points about white America's response to Hurricane Katrina. All the subjects, whether aging Black Panther leaders or musicians, seem to warm to Francome's ingenuous interviewing style and obvious idealism.
As in The Thin Blue Line, the film-makers uncover some fresh evidence about the murder and thereby become part of the story they are chronicling. It now looks as if Mumia, after his 25 years on Death Row, will finally get a re-trial. On one level, In Prison My Whole Life is a campaigning film, made to bring attention to the injustice of Mumia's conviction, but its real richness lies in its scope. Mumia's case, the film-makers make clear, is part of a much bigger story of racism and exploitation. It is a story they tell in a vivid and always accessible way.
Nana Films (UK)
The Maverick Lloyd Foundation (US)
The Wales Creative IP Fund (UK)
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Livia Giuggioli Firth
Nick Goodwin Self