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John Brown's Body at San Quentin Prison

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John Brown’s Body at San Quentin Prison is a film about America – the far history, slavery and the Civil War - and the near history, the lives of a particular group of prisoners serving life sentences for murder at San Quentin prison. These two histories meet through a drama workshop whose sole occupation is to mount a live stage production of an almost forgotten piece of literature, a neglected American masterpiece, John Brown’s Body, by Stephen Vincent Benet. The film takes an unorthodox form, part performance – excerpted pieces of the recorded live performance of the play – and part documentary, acute observations from prisoners on prison life, the seeming endless rehearsals and frank personal revelations about their crimes, by a cast of characters who were also the actors in the play.. The restrictions on the workshop are great – no recording devices of any kind; no costumes; no props; no female actors. Rehearsals are voluntary and can be held only on the prisoner’s free time. No one is excused from work time. There is no thought to make a documentary film under these restrictions. Rehearsals begin in May of 2000 and continue for almost three years – once a week at first, and then two, three and four days a week by the end. Some thirty-five men pass through the workshop over its two and a half year life. Cast members are continually lost to transfers to other prisons, without notice, and to months-long trips to the hole. Rehearsals are cancelled without notice due to lockdowns or heavy fog or arbitrary reasons – one time, for a week due to an execution. We follow the men from the beginning, where their reason to show up at the drama workshop is to pass the time. None believes anything will come of it. Over the course of the film, we see the men’s interest grow from skeptical to interested to committed. Finally, this mixed-race group of individuals learns to trust one another and gradually becomes a company.. The performances before some five hundred people, including the warden, her staff and other inmates, are a triumph. The effect on the men is dramatic, even transformative. One of the men sums up what the experience meant to him: “Up until we did the play, I was never forced to be responsible. This is one of those times I was forced to be responsible…It gives me another dimension of who I am. It gives me another dimension of life, period.”.
De Francesco Films (Firm), distributorKanopy (Firm), distributor
De Francesco Films, 2013.[San Francisco, California, USA] : Kanopy Streaming, 2016.
1 online resource (streaming video file) (74 minutes): digital, .flv file, sound
In Process Record.Title from title frames.FilmOriginally produced by De Francesco Films in 2013.In English
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Mode of access: World Wide Web.
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LocationCollectionCall numberStatus/Desc
WebEmoviesSTREAMINGcheck availability online (Set: 02 May 2018)
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