Filmmaker and Yale Ph.D. candidate Sylvia Ryerson (American Studies) collaborates with artists, organizers, and scholars on all sides of prison walls to imagine a future beyond those walls. Her work—whether in the form of scholarship or film—probes the overlapping crises of mass incarceration, rural poverty, and environmental destruction. I spoke with Sylvia about her debut documentary film, Calls from Home, and her experience making a film to amplify prison abolition.
Want to see the film for yourself? Join us at 4 p.m. on Thursday, October 13, for Beyond Walls: Filmmaking for Prison Abolition, a double feature film screening of Calls from Home and Adamu Chan’s What These Walls Won’t Hold followed by a moderated discussion.
Interested in how contemporary mass incarceration has shaped inner life, public spectacle, and moral possibilities? Join us again on Friday, October 14, for the one-day symposium Incarceration and Imagination.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the film you’ve made?
Prior to grad school, I worked as a community media maker at Appalshop, a renowned multidisciplinary arts and education center located in the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfield. The organization addresses the region’s most pressing social and environmental issues – from strip mining to welfare rights to battles for unionization—and is home to the region’s beloved community radio station WMMT-FM 88.7. One of the station’s longstanding programs is a weekly show called Calls from Home. Every Monday night, the show broadcasts messages to reach people incarcerated in the region’s vast prison system, from their family members. I co-directed and served as DJ for the show for many years. My film grows out of this work. It is a 32-minute documentary film called Calls from Home, centering the stories of incarcerated listeners and their family members who have been using the show to stay connected over decades of separation caused by mass incarceration, and as a ground for multi-sited organizing against the horrors of the U.S. prison industrial complex.
Q: You received support from the 2021 Docs in Action Film Fund to make Calls from Home. What is this award and how was your film chosen for it?
Docs in Action is a program launched by the organization Working Films to support the production of short documentary films that can be used by movements working to address urgent issues of social and environmental justice. In the fall of 2020, following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the nationwide rebellions that followed, Working Films put out a call for media to amplify abolition. Aware that this was a new territory for them, they reached out to organizations at the forefront of the deeply rooted movements for police and prison abolition—which include Center for Political Education, Critical Resistance, MPD150, and Survived & Punished—and ceded all decision-making in the funding process to them.
To have this work selected by leaders of this movement is an extraordinary honor and responsibility. Most importantly, it has created pathways for building relationships through the process of our film’s production. We’ve been in conversation with these organizers throughout—from sharing our earliest rough cuts for feedback, to beginning to plan for grassroots distribution together. To me, the structure that Working Films has provided for this process is a model for how all funders can leverage their institutional capacity to support the production of work that is held accountable to, and in the service of, the communities it aims to support.
Q: What’s one thing you’ve learned about incarceration during this process that you think everyone should know?
One of the most meaningful parts of this process for me was getting to know and work very closely with an amazing artist who goes by Pitt Panther and is currently incarcerated by the Virginia DOC. If you come to the screening, you’ll see how his artwork and analysis are central to the film. Working with Pitt, and so many others, taught me a lesson I think we all need to be taught again and again: in working against the prison system, we cannot subscribe to its logics of separation, isolation, and hierarchical authority. This system has ensnared so many brilliant scholars, artists, and organizers, who are already doing the work of abolition on the inside. For those of us on the outside, I think our challenge is to figure out ways of doing process-centered work that enacts ethical collaborations across prison walls despite the barriers they pose. And this collaboration—in and of itself—should be a principal measure of what we consider “successful” work against mass incarceration.
Megan O’Donnell (Ph.D. University of Delaware) is the associate communications officer for the Whitney Humanities Center, where she does more than polish prose and craft content. She amplifies the voices of humanities faculty and students across Yale, cultivating community through the center’s print, digital, and social media communications.