Life at the Berrimah Hilton: Prison Songs (Kelrick Martin, 2015)

A ground-breaking and uncompromising documentary that sings into life the stories of a group of Indigenous Australians inmates and shatters preconceptions with grace, empathy and humour.

“Is this your first time at the Berrimah Hilton? Prepare to be amazed. Checking in is all too easy.” – Phil

The “Berrimah Hilton” was Northern Territory largest correctional facility. Built in 1979, the prison was supposed to house up to 110 inmates, but before being decommissioned at the end of 2014 that number had risen to about 800. Of those, 80% were Indigenous people.

The incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians is a tough and confronting topic and one that the general public often shies away from. But what we forget whenever we avoid confrontation with such overwhelming evidence are the stories and the lives behind the data. Kelrick Martin’s new TV documentary Prison Songs shows the faces behind the statistics, giving them centre stage and letting nine inmates sing their story in their own voice.

Inspired by the Brian Hill musical documentaries Feltham Sings (2002) and Songbirds (2007), Martin’s latest effort is the result of over two years of negotiation with Australian authorities to gain access and film in the Berrimah prison. Work on the doco started with interviews with inmates through which the main stories were selected. Shellie Morris, an Indigenous singer- songwriter and writer-musician Casey Bennetto,  then wrote the music for the documentary drawing on the interviews and a make-shift studio was then set up in the prison to record the tracks once the selected group of inmates reviewed the lyrics and gave their approval.

Prison Songs is a heartfelt documentary that is not afraid of taking risks and experimenting with the format to make sure that the stories it tells will stay with its viewers for a long time.

Shot on location inside Berrimah prison, the musical documentary alternates between intimate interviews, beautifully framed external shots and musical scenes in video-clip style. And while we might expect the music to be rather somber given the subject, our assumptions are quickly shattered as hip hop, reggae, blues, and gospel tunes start telling about life on the outside and the inside with moving honesty.

 Max and Dale Photograph: SBS

Max and Dale sing “In the Middle”, a great hip-hop song about their experience as light-skinned Indigenous people. Photograph: SBS

There’s lot of Indigenous humour and irony, like in the brilliant “Berrimah Hilton” commercial and in the reggae love song “Silver Princess”, and it integrates seamlessly with even the bleakest moments where addiction, family violence and the ongoing impact of colonialism on Indigenous society are discussed through the experience of the inmates. Torstein Dyrting’s photography alternates between beautifully framed close ups and wider shots, relying on negative space and on the scorching heat that permeates the prison’s ground to give life to the stories.

Martin’s documentary never tries to lecture its audience or to push a point. It finds its strength and truth in songs able to generate empathy and connect people beyond stereotypes.

It doesn’t condone nor condemn the actions that put Max, Dale, Phil, Malcom, Molly, Bernardine and Wurdankardi behind bars, but simply ask the viewers to listen to their story and to their hopes. There is very little exposition and the key contextual info necessary to frame their stories as part of a bigger issue are given with brief surtitles to let the images and the songs speak for themselves.

Molly (center) and a group of female inmates at Berrimah Prison. Photograph: SBS

Molly (center) and a group of female inmates at Berrimah Prison. Photo by SBS

Prison Songs is a ground-breaking and moving documentary that confirms Kelrick Martin as one of Australia’s finest documentary-makers.

This is definetly a must see and you can catch-up online until the 19th of January here:

2 thoughts on “Life at the Berrimah Hilton: Prison Songs (Kelrick Martin, 2015)

  1. Hi Jay! Thanks for your comment.

    Indeed, Brian Hill had already used this format in two of his docos about British inmates and was also on board as a producer for Prison Songs.

    The reason why I called Martin’s doco ground-breaking is not because it introduces new techniques , but rather relates to the fact that the topic of Indigenous incarceration rates in Australia has never, to the best of my knowledge, been presented in such a way.

    As such, I think the documentary breaks new ground in Australia and contributes to spreading innovative ideas on what can be done within the limits of a TV documentary format.


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