Anthology Film Archives


June 20 – July 8

Mainstream movies inform much of what we understand about prisons, and while most commercially-driven films provide us with an ideology meant to naturalize the prison system, there are others that persist in challenging received notions about the usefulness and effectiveness of punishment. Spanning from the 1950s to today, this series brings together a broad selection of films, with each reflecting different aesthetic and critical relationships to the prison institution: from provocative, activist documentaries to inmate-made films, from commercial exploitation cinema to classic escape dramas, and more.

Although this series is wide-ranging in scope, each of the films share one thing in common: they incorporate real elements of prison experience into the material of the film. Whether by setting a fictional narrative inside of an actual prison building, by composing a documentary from the intimate accounts of prisoners, or even by identifying subtle traces of the penal system far from the prison’s actual location, the films in this series demonstrate a variety of ways of confronting assumptions about prison life and raising issues about its representation. Since it is easy to consider the prison as an abstract site (disconnected from communities, holding the undesirables that society is reluctant to think about or take responsibility for), and likewise difficult to face what transpires within them and the realities they produce, the singular act of drawing from real elements of the prison system speaks to a radical vision underlying this cinematic approach. If directors use authentic elements of an inmate’s life in the hopes of creating a sense of interior or exterior truth, their films may also engender authentic and concrete forms of knowledge about the prison institution and the effects of incarceration. In short, these films may unsettle the viewer and upset the order of things.

“Prison Images” has been curated in collaboration with Evelyn Emile, who also wrote the introduction and most of the film descriptions, and is presented in association with FRAMEWORK: The Journal of Cinema and Media, which hosts an ongoing special section entitled “Prison USA” (

Special thanks to Brian Belovarac (Janus Films); Eric Di Bernardo (Rialto Pictures); Nick Broomfield; Sebastian del Castillo (American Genre Film Archive); Sam Di Iorio (Hunter College); Jack Durwood (Paramount); Nicole Fernández Ferrer (Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir); Jim Finn; Kristen Fitzpatrick (Women Make Movies); Amélie Garin-Davet (Cultural Services of the French Embassy); Kyle Gibbon; Jane Gutteridge (National Film Board of Canada); Pere Portabella, Helena Goma & Adrián Onco (Films 59); Roselly A. Torres Rojas (Third World Newsreel); Elena Rossi-Snook (New York Public Library for the Performing Arts); Brett Story; and Todd Wiener & Steven Hill (UCLA Film & Television Archive).

< Back to Series