Cinéma du Réel review: Bring Down the Walls (Phil Collins)

Editor’s note: Like so many events, the Paris-based documentary festival Cinéma du réel was cancelled because of the measures taken to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The festival, however, graciously provided accredited critics with a number of films online that were supposed to play in its various sections. Our own Cédric Succivalli will review a number of these this week.

In the early eighties the US prison industrial complex underwent rapid growth through a combination of the privatization of correctional facilities and the disproportionate targeting of the marginalized and the poor, in particular people of color. US prisons suddenly became a source of profit as well as a tool of oppression, a win-win situation for some people situated on the right of the political spectrum. The current prison population in the US is over 2 million people, many of them ’employed’ in prison labor.

At the same time house music also set out on its path to conquer the world. After the death of disco, young black, Latinx, and queer communities found a safe haven in some of the clubs of Chicago, Detroit, and New York, embattled as they were by a system that tried to force them into the prison industrial complex. In that sense you could say house music was an almost direct reaction to the intensified oppression of these communities by their own government.

British artist Phil Collins (no, not that British artist) worked with incarcerated men in the Sing Sing prison in New York. After his access was revoked, for a short period of time he set up a center in New York, smack in the middle of the court district no less, dedicated to the abolition of prisons and the struggle for social justice. During the daytime it provided a space for people that had been, directly or indirectly, impacted by the prison system, a space where they could educate and discuss the detrimental effect of the prison industrial complex on marginalized communities. At night it became a club dedicated to classic house music, as a celebration of freedom and togetherness.

Bring Down the Walls, titled after Robert Owens’s 1986 track, is as much a documentary that highlights both aspects of Collins’ project as it is a political pamphlet. Through speeches, discussion, and personal stories it underlines just how perverse the prison industrial complex is, and how the justice system, in a concerted effort, provides this complex with a workforce to profit off of. Interspersed are scenes from the house nights where people communally celebrate house music as an expression of freedom and a form of political dance. Seminal classics such as Joe Smooth’s Promised Land and Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk’s Love Can’t Turn Around get a political charge through the fact that these aren’t the original versions, but new ones sung by former inmates. This relays a powerful message that is embedded in the lyrics of house’s original anthem, Marshall Jefferson’s Move Your Body: “Give me that house music to set me free.