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“We Cannot Underestimate the Collective Power of Those Who Have No Access to Power”: Tana Gilbert Discusses ‘Malqueridas’

By Lauren Wissot

Image Credit: Wouter Jansen. Film still from 'Malqueridas.'

Film still from Malqueridas. Courtesy of Square Eyes

A heartfelt departure from the prison life documentaries that have become so ubiquitous in recent years, Tana Gilbert’s Malqueridas takes a novel approach to this thorny topic through a most unusual lens. Comprised solely of clandestinely shot cellphone footage—in its original vertical format—from inside a Santiago women’s prison by incarcerated mothers, the film is narrated by “Karina,” a mom who spent six years behind bars. In the film, she voices the experience of and for the collective whole, specifically the 20 or so women who participated in “extensive conversations” during the film’s research phase. This makes Malqueridas not just a fascinating glimpse into a little-seen world, but also a rare testament to directorial empathy—with the Chilean filmmaker staying as far from the frame and hands off the story, which does not belong to her, as she possibly can.

Shortly after Malqueridas premiered at Venice, Documentary reached out to the debut feature filmmaker, whose shorts have screened internationally, including at Hot Docs and Chicago IFF, to learn all about bringing this “illegal” film (phones are banned in Chile’s prisons) to the big screen. Malqueridas is playing next at IDFA.

DOCUMENTARY: I read in your director’s statement that every frame of the doc had been “printed and redigitized in order to give these images a physical presence, making them enduring and impossible to erase.” Can you expand on this a bit? What led you to use only cellphone-generated imagery, even preserving the vertical format, and then printing and redigitizing the footage? How did these choices affect the editing process?

TANA GILBERT: The editing process lasted more than a year, working with raw material we had collected over six years. Once that stage was finished, we then began the frame-by-frame printing of the film images. We ended up printing 32,640 images in order to give them a physical and permanent space. These images created by incarcerated women during their sentences really allow us to enter that intimacy of the prison where they lived for several years.

In addition, their recordings give us a unique lens into a world we do not know and [enable us] to become aware of their experiences and the relationships they create amongst each other inside the prison—which we would never have been able to access otherwise. For us, these materials have been a treasure since the beginning of the project.

D: How did you land on Karina as a reinterpreter of the 20-plus women’s narratives? Was this collective structure part of the original concept from the start?

TG: Karina has been a part of the film since its inception, and always caught our ear in terms of sound. She was the vocalist for the prison choir, which meant she possessed great skill when it came to both voice and interpretative power. 

Karina narrates these stories as if they were her own. She spent more than six years in prison, and some of the moments described were her own experiences, while others were likewise shared with her friends or partners. The voice and images in the film are a collective; we realized the importance of creating it this way because of the common milestones that each of them had regarding motherhood. While each woman’s story had its peculiarities, they had all experienced similar types of family trajectories and violence. The narrative is built upon the stories of many women who took part in the film’s research and emerged from extensive conversations with more than 20 of them, reinterpreted by Karina.

D: Why do you think these women trusted you with their stories? Was it due to your involvement with the NGO-led workshops in the San Joaquín women’s prison? Your own family’s familiarity with incarceration? Some combination?

TG: I think it has to do with the work we did in the research phase, building trust and starting a collaborative process. We never wanted to work with them in a sporadic and utilitarian way; we made an effort to get them to trust us. They really wanted to talk about what they had experienced, both in and out of prison. 

Throughout 2018 we started to join different organizations that run workshops in women’s prisons. This is how we got to know some of them, and from there we began to be in contact over the internet. As the relationships with the women developed, we started visiting them in prison directly, in person as family members. Aside from the fact that they saw the film as an opportunity to tell their stories, we also became part of their larger support network outside of prison.

D: Interestingly and unnervingly, this film likely wouldn’t exist without Facebook, a U.S. corporation with a business model based on extraction and exploitation, especially (and brazenly) when it comes to impoverished communities. What is your own relationship to the platform, and to social media in general?

TG: Our focus was on the material generated on the platform rather than on the social network itself—the possibility of creating images of the world and sharing them. Creating images means appropriating reality and making it our own, as Susan Sontag says, and in a context of institutional violence and marginalization, the collective memory becomes an archive of resistance. I think that we cannot underestimate the collective power of those who have no access to power; representing our own world is a part of this power. 

It is true that social networks allow for communication between people, but the film centers on a larger issue. For me, mothering and caring are physical relationships that can be maintained through the internet, but this is unsustainable in the long term. Allowing women to raise their children outside of prison reduces the chance of intergenerational reproduction of criminality.

I’ll note that back in October 2016, a young Mapuche woman named Lorenza Cayuhan gave birth while shackled and in the presence of male prison guards. Her daughter was named Sayén, and she is the inspiration for a draft proposal of a law today. It calls for pregnant women accused of a crime, or those with children under two years old, to serve their sentence outside of a correctional facility, and to be granted access to alternative methods such as intensive supervised release. The idea is to avoid having children grow up behind bars. Rather than maintain these mother-infant units in Chilean prisons, the kids will instead go to family residences once they reach the age of two.

The draft is still in development, though, and we are waiting for our congress to vote on it this year. (That said, it would still only apply to women serving sentences for low-level crimes, with a maximum of five years.)

D: How have the authorities (e.g., the Chilean Penitentiary Administration) reacted to the film? Have there been negative consequences for any of the participants and/or for you and your team? Has this testament to the gritty reality of motherhood behind bars resulted in improved conditions at all?

TG: So far there haven’t been any negative repercussions from the authorities. There is, however, much public interest for the film to be screened and to allow for discussions about the conditions of mothers in prisons in Chile. Undoubtedly, the dialogue continues, and we will continue to encourage reflection on the issue.

I should say that the use of cell phones inside prisons is a very common reality in Chile and throughout Latin America, despite the fact that they are completely forbidden. In Chile, this prohibition was only an internal protocol of the police. Violators were supposed to be punished with the suspension of visitors or with confinement in isolation cells.

Two months ago, though, the situation changed, and it is now illegal—with prison sentences enhanced for the use of cell phones. For this reason, today more than ever, it is important to address the issue of communication, such as how to generate new mechanisms so that families don’t lose contact with people deprived of their liberty. 

I’ll add that during the research process, the first decision we made was to work only with women who would already be out of prison at the time of the film’s premiere. This was an initial requirement that brought us closer to people with sentences of around five to six years. Currently, there are some people who are still deprived of their liberty, but they do not appear directly in the film and their names have been omitted so as not to expose them. We received advice from lawyers with expertise in penitentiary law and intellectual property rights to learn about the risks of working with these materials and this subject matter.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review: The European Documentary Magazine and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.