“Abolition is building the future from the present, in all of the ways we can.” Those are the poignant words of scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, cited in the Maysles Documentary Center’s announcement for its forthcoming film screening focused on prison abolition. XO & Struggle: An Evening of Abolitionist Cinema, taking place this Friday, December 16 at the Harlem-based nonprofit, will showcase six shorts by five filmmakers featuring a conversation after the screening.
Emily Apter, the Maysles’s co-director of programming, curated the event alongside filmmakers Alex Johnston and Kelly Gallagher, both of whom are presenting their work in the lineup. Johnston’s short film “Dark Cell Harlem Farm” (2022) delves into the 1913 deaths of 12 Black men on a prison plantation, exploring the dark history of Texas prisons from the abolition of slavery through the modern day. Gallagher’s film “From Ally to Accomplice” (2015) investigates notions of allyship through examinations of White activists including John Brown and Marilyn Buck.
“While building this program, we spoke a lot about abolition as a political project infused with the joys and hope of making a better world,” Apter told Hyperallergic. “These films at once contain the horror and violence of carceral systems and the love, creativity, and revolutionary spirit necessary for social transformation.”
The filmmakers chosen by the three curators approach prison abolition from a range of angles. Christopher Harris’s 2021 film “Dreams Under Confinement” presents a bleak portrait of the police crackdown on the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago and offers an unsettling picture of our contemporary surveillance state.
The three-minute film is set to the sound of police radios during the uprisings; the voices are frantic and overlapping, but the track is pierced with clear soundbites of sinister remarks uttered by the officers. The film is comprised entirely of imagery from Google Maps. Harris outlines the 96-acre Cook County Department of Corrections — which holds 7,500 incarcerated people and is one of the country’s largest — before exploring Chicago through overhead shots. With its tidy patterns of winding roads and gridlocked blocks, the city bears a strange similarity to the jail. Then, Harris descends to street level, mimicking the journey of a cop car as the scanner continues to blare.
“XO & Struggle” also includes two shorts by Cameron Granger: “How to Disappear Completely” (2020) and “The Line” (2021). The first film is set in Granger’s downtown apartment during the COVID-19 lockdown of summer 2020, and the second explores Black migration by focusing on the East Side neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio.
Granger told Hyperallergic that as a video artist, he was aware of the complicated histories of the camera. “That’s the challenge: How do I take this capturing and extracting device, the camera, the captured image, and build a practice that loves us?” Granger said. “How can we use love as the rocket ship to get us elsewhere?”
The last film will be Saeedah Cook’s two-part series Abolition Affirmations (2021). Although each work is under a minute long, Cook asks their viewers to interrogate their ideas about the feasibility of prison abolition and conveys an urgent insistence — “Hope is a discipline,” reads a quote from activist Mariame Kaba featured in the first segment.
XO & Struggle: An Evening of Abolitionist Cinema runs from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm this Friday. The Maysles Documentary Center suggests a donation of $15 or a reduced donation of $7; more details can be found here.