Doing Time: Life Inside The Big House (1991)

DVD Cover (Docurama)
Genres: Documentary, Law & Crime, Prison Film, Social Issues
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Alan Raymond Alan Raymond
Alan Raymond Alan Raymond

7.4 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Review by Chad
Added: June 28, 2006
HBO's Oz was, in my opinion, one of the best television shows that I have ever seen. Watching that series got me hooked on those various real-life prison documentaries that air every now and again on cable, so needless to say, I decided to give this one a viewing on new-release Tuesday. Sadly, this DVD was a disappointment.

Normally, I'd use this space to tell you readers what the documentary is about or what it tries to show to the audience, but with this particular film, I can't do that. You see, as Alan Raymond explains during an interview in the bonus features section of the DVD, there was no particular subject in mind when he decided to create this documentary. He was granted access to the Lewisberg prison for filming purposes by the Justice Department, and he went in with his camera and poked around looking for good shots. What you see in this documentary is a result of those six weeks of filming; there's a piece where the warden talks about the prison, a guard talks about the weapons the prisoners carry, we watch stock footage of SORT teams tackling prisoners, and a few of the prisoners talk about their lives in prison. Each of these segments could have been interesting, but it's the lack of actual material that brings them down.

When the guard talks about the weapon usage behind these walls, there are no stats or numbers to show how common this is, and he adds nothing to the conversation other than quips such as "They use weapons to protect themselves" and "They don't want to use their fists". Insightful and riveting television, this was not - and that seemed to be the running theme behind the film.

Watching the prisoners discuss life inside prison should have been the best part of the documentary, but even that falls flat; a few of them are unrepentant, some of them are sorry for what they've done, and one guy in particular should really be housed at an insane asylum instead of a prison. That's the depth of this documentary, and Raymond never asks the hard-hitting questions that we at home would like to hear; when he talks to a man who murdered three of his family members, he asks "What weapon did you use" and "How did you do it", but he never thinks to ask the obvious "Why did you do it" question. Once again, it becomes obvious that this was not a well thought-out documentary, and chunks taken from spur-of-the-moment interviews do not make a good documentary.

The presentation runs for just a few minutes short of an hour, which is another problem that I had with the overall film. Raymond had six weeks to shoot material at this prison, and this hour of material is the absolute best that he could come up with? I find that hard to believe, especially when you consider that the material that actually made it into the final cut is nothing noteworthy. This documentary did nothing to enlighten, inform, or even entertain me; it merely reinforces every obvious idea that one may have about prison life. Yes, there are dangerous people inside there, and indeed, they seem to be split between being sorry for what they've done or thinking that they are the real victims. So, what was the point of putting the blatantly obvious on film?

Avoid: there's just nothing interesting to be seen here. Perhaps I expected too much from this "Academy Award nominee" after watching the prison-themed offerings from The Discovery Channel, but I just didn't find a single scene in here that was worthy of praise. 2/10.
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