Through prison walls
Filmmakers Margo Pelletier and Lisa Thomas have been down a long road, and now, they’ll take a detour to Reno.
Their film, SILVIA, a documentary on political prisoner Silvia Baraldini, has been six years in the making.
Pelletier, who was working as an artist and political activist in New York City in the 1980s, befriended Baraldini, an Italian woman and prominent civil rights activist. Pelletier and a small group once tried to prevent a South African rugby team from boarding a plane in New York in an effort to call attention to South African apartheid. She was convicted of trespassing and resisting arrest. She spent six months in prison.
“I had, early on, an experience of being a political prisoner,” Pelletier says over the phone from her studio in upstate New York. “Granted, it was a short one, but it predisposed me to understand who political prisoners really were.”
Pelletier resumed making art, went to graduate school and kept in touch with Baraldini, who was serving time in an experimental prison in Lexington, Ky. Baraldini has been charged and sentenced to 43 years in prison under the RICO conspiracy law (among other counts) after helping Assata Shakur, a female Black Panther, to escape from prison.
“The Lexington Control Unit was an experiment to see what the public would withstand and how much prisoners could withstand,” says Pelletier. She describes it as a place where lights were always kept on, and the five prisoners, all women, were frequently strip searched and not allowed contact with families or lawyers.
Letters written by the inmates drew the public’s attention, and an ACLU suit led to improved conditions. But still, the prison’s gatekeepers weren’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for independent filmmakers.
“This was a political time period that wasn’t supposed to be known to the public,” Pelletier says.
Her collaborator, Lisa Thomas, says, “We overcame that obstacle by working with other filmmakers.”
They relied on borrowed footage from an earlier film, Nina Rosenblum’s 1990 Through the Wire, and corresponded directly with Baraldini. Thomas’ connections from the world of television came in handy. She’s a freelance producer for MTV, PBS and other networks, and her knowledge of Italian helped her get information from journalists in Baraldini’s home country.
The filmmakers managed to visit Baraldini, but when they couldn’t shoot or acquire footage, they filled in some of the visual gaps with drawings and re-creations.
Their funding came the same way as their footage, piece by piece. They won grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and other foundations. After the official recognition afforded by a state grant, family members and friends began to take the project more seriously, and many of them pitched in, as well.
Now, Pelletier and Thomas have a rough cut of SILVIA, which they’ll screen at the Nevada Museum of Art on Feb. 22 next week as part of the 1st Annual Spring Semester Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery New Films and Filmmakers Series. With the same type of cross-disciplinary, grassroots efforts they’ve grown used to in making and funding their film, they plan to visit history and art classes at the University of Nevada, Reno and participate in a panel discussion with a journalism professor, a military science professor, a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter and several others.
As Sheppard Gallery director Marjorie Vecchio put it, “In a political discussion, the more voices that come across the better.”