A Conversation With Kathlyn Horan (THE IF PROJECT)

(Kathlyn Horan’s The If Project is a powerful look at the power of storytelling to overcome life’s obstacles. The film premieres on Logo on Wednesday, September 14 at 8pm ET/PT. “The IF Project” is a Logo Documentary Films /TinFish Films Production.)

I recently spoke by phone with director Kathlyn Horan (Indigo Girls: One Lost Day) about her new documentary feature, The IF Project, (reviewed here) which tells the powerfully moving story of a cathartic writing workshop at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), near Seattle, where the inmates explore the cause-and-effect cycle that landed them in prison, and the big “IF” of what might have led them down a different path. The brainchild of one of the incarcerated women, Renata Abramson, the program is overseen by police officer Kim Bogucki, who invests an enormous amount of time and energy to help these women help themselves. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for clarity.

Hammer to Nail: So it took you 8 years to film the movie, which is pretty incredible. When and how did you start? And what came first, police officer Kim Bogucki or an interest in female inmates, or inmates, in general?

Kathlyn Horan: I guess it was a combination of things. I’ve always been interested in using film for social-justice issues and to tell a more human, emotional story as a way of getting people engaged and aware. Kim just happened to contact me after she got the first stack of essays – as you see in the film – and she called me. I had known her, in the past, through mutual friends, and so I wanted to try and tell a story of this world that she was in. And initially I thought that she would provide great access to these stories and not necessarily be in it, and then she called me about this stack of essays and said, you know, I’ve been a cop for 21 years, and I’ve seen a lot of stuff, but nothing like this has ever happened to me before. And she said, I know something is here, but I don’t know if I have the skill set to bring it to life.

At that point, she sent me some of the essays, which were amazing and moving, and I brought up the idea, why don’t we just go to the prison, and if the prison was willing – and, luckily, WCCW has been very supportive throughout this whole process – we could do an open call-out, which means that they, the prison itself, invites any woman who wants to show up to come to the meeting, and we could sit down and talk about what this could be. I think, from both of our perspectives, we wanted it to come from the women, because so often, when you see stories about people in the criminal justice system, it’s heavily about the crime, and they’re in a very vulnerable position to be telling their stories. So we wanted to engage them and ask them what they wanted from this. We had these essays, and I knew what I wanted – I wanted to make a feature documentary, with an additional educational piece – but what did they want?

So we met with two groups of about 50 women each, and we sat in a circle and went around, and every single woman said that they wanted to use their stories to prevent other people – children, in particular – from ending up where they are. From that, we thought, OK, we can put together this educational piece, and then I pitched to them, what do you think, would you be willing to let me involve you guys in the story and put a human face back on people who are incarcerated. They were willing to do that, but it was definitely not the first thing on their list.

And then, we also realized in that meeting that they really needed programming and access to courses, so we had the idea of developing the essays into a writing workshop. So we brought in Amber Flame – the writing teacher you see in the film, and she’s an amazing writer and slam poet – and got together and came up with all these different questions to sort of break down the one big “IF” question. And so in one meeting, all of these things came out, and the prison was willing to go along with it, and it just organically grew from there. I thought that I would be done in a year, and then…8 years later, here we are! (laughs)

HtN: So you’re talking about gaining access to the story, and you said that the Washington Corrections Center was very supportive, and obviously they were, based on what we see in the film. What, however, was the actual process of obtaining permission to film inside a high-security environment?

KH: Well, that took a while. And through the course of the 8 years, I think we went through 3 or 4 superintendents, so each time there was a new superintendent, we had to run the project back through the process just to make sure they were OK with it. And, again, every single one of them was. Separately from that, I had to go through the head office of the Department of Corrections, in Olympia, which took about 6 to 8 months to do the proposal of what I wanted to film, send work samples, and get it through their chain to come back around and say that it was OK.

In terms of the process of actually being there, on the ground, I think we had a different experience because we had a police officer with us. There was a different level of trust, because the other officers – the guards, who like to be called officers and not guards, but I’m just differentiating here – put a little more trust in us, knowing that Kim understands the rules of law enforcement. I think, as a result, that we got a little more access. Plus, we were also creating a program that was very positive and the women loved it and, interestingly, over the course of it, a lot of the officers grew to support it. Some people weren’t supportive, but I would say that the majority of everyone there could see the change that was happening as a result of this, and they were learning more from the women by observing the project, as well. So there was a bureaucracy to run through, but generally, everything went pretty smoothly.

The rules were a little bit looser when we first began the project, and then, at the men’s prison, in Monroe, where we actually went to interview, a week after we were there, an officer was murdered. As a result, the rules became much stricter, in terms of our ability to move around the prison, but we were still able to continue filming. It just got more restrictive.

HtN: Well, that brings up something else I wanted to ask. You do have a brief moment where we are in a men’s prison, and I was curious whether you ever considered including more of the program there. Did you have so little because of the complications due to the murder, or did you always intend to focus primarily on the women?

KH: We did go back to the men’s prison and film there, and that was in large part for the educational piece. In addition to the feature documentary, which is intended for a wider audience, we also have a 30-minute education piece that is specifically for the outreach work that The IF Project program does, so I would like to go back to the men’s prison. I think narratively it made more sense to stay with the women for this film. As I discovered, not a lot of changes happens quickly, if you’re trying to build some kind of narrative structure in a prison; day-to-day life is not very exciting. That was part of the reason why I continued to film for so long. I thought, they’re going to start getting out, and if I take the time to wait for them to get out, we can get more of an arc and see what life is like on the outside. So sticking with the women and following through on those stories made more sense.

Since that’s complete, my goal is now to do something like a four-part documentary series, covering male, female, juvenile male and juvenile female prisoners and kind of track the central [IF] question within these groups, because the answers are very different to each population. The men answer very differently from the way the women answer. So we’ve begin that process, and that would be the next thing to pitch down the line here: getting back in and showing those stories.

HtN: That’s interesting, and you could also, depending on how long you want to be involved with this story, do a sort of Seven Up! kind of thing and return to them and see how it has affected them over the long haul.

 KH: Absolutely! I love that. And part of the thing was that I wanted to stay in that intimate environment of the prison and have you feel a little claustrophobic in that world, but then have a little bit of relief in Act II, getting outside, and mimicking a little bit of what they go through. And, you know, it’s hard! Re-entry is…you think that people get out of prison and they’re jumping up and down with excitement, and there is that, but there is more than 50% fear over going back and everything you have to face, getting a job and housing. And the difference, for women, is that they get the kids back. When they get out, for a lot of the men, if they have children, they are already in a home, and they get back and build these relationships. But for a lot of the women, they get the kids right back, so they’re dealing with the parent thing and all the other issues that you have to face. So I think you’re right, it would be…I would love to do a follow-up, over time. And all the women – the stories that we’ve tracked – have done really well.

HtN: Speaking of re-entry, there’s a startling scene, later in the film, when you follow the story of one of these three women from The IF Project who get out, who suffers a drug relapse, and then we follow Officer Bogucki when she goes to pick her up to bring her to rehab. It’s a low moment for her, and just a few months before she had seemed to be doing so well, and your camera is right there. In the moment, did you have to renegotiate the permission to film, or did you just start filming and catch what you caught?

 KH: That was me [on camera]. I filmed a portion of it, myself, and then when I got some money I hired some better shooters than I, but I happened to be filming that same weekend when Renata was released, and I had brought my camera along just in case that happened, and Tiffany [the woman in question], as Kim says in the film, wrote on Facebook that she wanted help. So I brought the camera…and there is that often-muddy line, when in the course of doing the project I became friends with these women, encouraging everyone to do better…and so I knew Tiffany well enough, and I brought the camera, but I went inside and asked her. I could have just gone in and started filming, but I went in and asked her if it was OK with her. And it was, otherwise I wouldn’t have. I think that you can still build in some interesting themes without having to put people in a bad position. And her perspective has always been that she wants people to learn from this. And she’s struggling, and she wants people to get it and she would put herself in that position in order to do that.

 HtN: I’m not surprised that you developed friendships with these women, since you were with them for 8 years. That’s a long time!

KH: And they’re amazing people! I mean, honestly, they’re some of the coolest people I’ve known in my life. Obviously, you want to be objective, but we all have our perspective when we’re making a film.

HtN: So, I imagine, even when you had other people shooting for you, given the setting of the prison, that you never had a particularly large crew. How many people, usually, were working with you when you were shooting?

KH: It would normally be one camera guy and one sound guy. I think, with any documentary subject, it’s just nicer that way to keep that intimacy. And all these guys – and gals – shooters and sound people, are all really talented. I was definitely trying to keep it as small as possible, because it was easier to navigate in that environment, but mainly just to keep it intimate, so you can kind of fade into the background.

HtN: Speaking of your crew, how did you find your editor, Ben Daughtrey, and your composer, Heather Reid? Had you worked with them before?

KH: A couple of the main DPs [Directors of Photography] were from the show Intervention, because early on I wanted people who could be in that kind of an emotional environment, and shoot intimately, and then from there, when I was getting recommendations for editors, a friend who had worked on Intervention – one of the DPs – recommended Ben, and we met and hit it off. He’s incredibly experienced and has done a wide variety of editing, from music videos to the film The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. He just got it, and is a smart and sensitive editor, and I tend to overthink things, so we worked really well together.

And Heather was a friend, and she had been in a band called The Murmurs, and then got into composing, and she’s a beautiful composer and incredible musician and sensitive to the process. I wanted someone who could do… (laughs)…my description was “a piano playing in outer space”…there’s a loneliness to prison and an isolation, but there’s a lot of heart and beauty to it. And she could take that directive and go and make really interesting stuff with kind of modern sounds, and she did just a fantastic job.

HtN: Well they both did, indeed, do a great job, and in a documentary, especially, the editor is so essential to finding the story. Finally, why are women the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population, increasing, as you say in the film, at nearly double the rate of men since 1985?

KH: The War on Drugs. That’s one of the big factors. In fact, the Vera Institute just put out a study about this. In the 1980s – or just before the War on Drugs – they would often just arrest the guy, and the guy would throw his drugs to his girlfriend and the police wouldn’t take the girlfriend in. I think, through the course of the War on Drugs, and all of these massive sentencing laws for petty crimes and drug crimes, they started bringing the women in, and that’s where that number started to rise. And then I think there are some other economic factors that contributed to this population getting involved in that realm. Because it is, in large part, drug crimes that these women are in for. That seems to be the basis for it.

And unfortunately, I think we’ll see the real effects … as I mentioned before, these women have kids, and these kids are now without their moms, and those kids have a higher likelihood to be incarcerated, themselves, so this is just perpetuating another cycle. Rather than locking people up, there are, in my opinion, better ways to be handling this. I think part of the goal in doing this film, for me, was…there are films that attack the system, and those are important, and that all needs to be done…but I wanted to look at what we can do as a society to prevent people from going to prison, so we can spend less money on prisons and spend more money on lifting these people up, giving them other alternatives to selling drugs or whatever variety of crime might lead them to prison.

HtN: Very well put. I think the choice to focus on the women, rather than on their crimes, is what makes your film so strong.

KH: My intention with this film was to not have the crime as part of their story. You find out eventually, in one way or another – perhaps not directly – what a lot of these women have done. I was told, as I pitched this thing, over time, trying to get funding – and even with Ben, the editor – that I was going to need to say what they did, up front. I was convinced that they would be interesting enough that you wouldn’t walk away and feel like you missed out on something. We could appeal to the better side of our lizard brains, and that turned out to be true. I haven’t had anybody, after watching the film…the first question isn’t, so what exactly did they do? There’s a lot of other questions that come up about incarceration, but not that one. So that was a little bit of a challenge, to be told that that wasn’t going to work. I think that it did. And it was important to frame this in a different way.

HtN: I agree. Thank you so much for making the film, and I hope that many more people see it.

KH: Thank you so much for talking to me about it. I appreciate it.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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