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RIDM preview: Songbirds

Posted by MP / November 12, 2006


It's a weird and brilliantly subversive thing to transform the harsh, often sad, stories of women in prison into catchy pop songs, with MTV stylings and universal appeal. That's exactly what director Brian Hill does in Songbirds, a musical documentary - and a film unlike anything you've probably ever seen.

Turns out the Brits like to lock up their own. In under a decade, the women's prison population has risen 173 percent in the country. In Songbirds, Hill takes us to Downview prison in Surrey, England. He introduces us to several women prisoners there, each of whom tell their story through bittersweet personalized songs he's had written and composed specifically for each woman by professional songwriters. Most of the prisoners, have, of course, led terrifically tragic lives - 'scary Mary,' for example, with her sunken, battered face, has the gangster bravado to match (and hide) her pain. A heroin addict, she has been beaten and raped more than she can remember, and spent a grand total of 2 out the past 20 years outside of prison walls. We see her lord over the prison yard, a top dog player at Downview, as she struts her stuff in the opening act, a rap, that's as street as they come.

We also meet women who have committed petty crimes like possessing ecstasy pills, others who have killed. Most have suffered poverty, violence, and abuse. Despite these hard realities, the film's many musical numbers, especially the movie's climatic caribbean-infused song 'n' dance number - all about drug mulling! - are so catchy i was often inspired to sing along.

This is strange, jarring and powerful storytelling. Hill is an innovator. He manages to gain intimate access to these women's tragic stories and capture what prison is like for women. I laughed and cried, was outraged and moved. Shot in a gorgeous digital Technicolor, the film portrays the prison as a kind of refuge for many. The women are candid about their friendships and love relationships 'on the inside' - they talk constantly about sex and their torrid affairs (often with each other). Sure there are rivalries and fights among them, but many of the women prefer prison life - the daily routine and company of other women - to the hardship they experienced, often at the hands of men, in the 'real' world.

Strangely, the mix of choreographed musical numbers infuse the grim stories of the women with something universal - we empathize with these women and their motivations, their tumultuous inner lives and even their criminal acts. It is all genius. Songbirds won over hearts at Toronto's Hot Docs and was by far one of my favourite films of the year.

Songbirds plays at RIDM, at 1pm on Saturday 18th November, at the NFB cinema. And again (because you'll likely want to watch it over again!) at 5pm on Sunday 19th November at Cinematheque Quebecois, salle Fernand-Seguin.



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