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In  Herman’s House , director Angad Singh Bhalla explores the strange relationship between imprisoned Black Panther Herman Wallace and artist Jackie Sumell. Sumell was profoundly moved by an interaction with Robert King, who along with Wallace and a third prisoner, Albert Woodfox, made up the Angola 3 — men who were all sent to solitary confinement in 1972 for killing a prison guard. King was released in 2001 after a lengthy appeals process, but the other two men are still there.

After hearing about Wallace’s case (he’s now spent nearly the past 40 years in a six-by-nine foot prison cell), Sumell decides to write him a letter and ultimately draw attention to his case through an art installation which eventually grows into a larger project. Sumell gets Wallace to describe his ideal house to her, which she then designs based on his descriptions. The installation, “The House that Herman Built” has been shown in 12 galleries in five countries, and Sumall has continued to work on building an actual house based on the designs, in New Orleans.

Herman Wallace’s story is truly harrowing. While in the Angola prison in Louisiana, he was wrongfully accused of killing a prison guard, and was eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Since then, he’s spent almost an entire four decades in solitary confinement. One of the interview subjects in the film even notes that nobody in the country has been held in solitary confinement longer.  At another point, Herman himself says “I was 31 when I came into this cell, I’m 69 now”, a disturbing statement indeed.

Allowing him to dream outside of the boundaries of his cell through this project with Jackie Sumell is a beautiful thing, but it’s also fascinating from a psychological perspective. When architects analyze Herman’s ideas for his ideal house, they talk about how oppressive and prison-like it seems. There are no free-flowing open spaces here. It’s full of small rooms and corridors. And yet, when Herman talks about the house, he talks about it representing what he’s been through, which makes his design seem very appropriate.

Herman’s House  is screening two more times at the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, on Wednesday, May 2, 2012  at 9:15 pm ad Sunday, May 6, 2012  at 9:30 pm. Check the festival website details and tickets.

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