“When you love someone, the good stuff makes you forget the bad” says a father locked up after having fallen deeper and deeper into a life of crime and struggling to hold his family together. Fatherhood grows further distanced when the hand of the law cracks upon it, the imprisoned men struggling to remain in their children’s lives. They tell stories far beyond the life within their cells, hoping it’ll keep their children from drifting away from them. This is the subject of Ábel Visky’s powerful documentary Takes From the Prison Cell, a debut for the filmmaker. 

Three incarcerated men write fairy tales for their children. They are not traditionally educated, not the type expected to become the writers and crafters of imagination, yet they work with want they have. Typical letters would allow them to fade from their family’s lives, the mundanity of the years of prison life grows stale, and in the end no one will listen to them. So they branch out, out into the realm of the fantastic, magical stories that tell more about how their values and viewpoints have changed more than any diaristic letter could.

One story is that of a pig raised by wolves, who goes to search for his real parents. Another is a fish caught by two fishermen that turns out to be a sea princess who saves them from a store. A third is a kingdom built upon false opulence, false teeth as currency, and those who choose to save it and set it free. In reality, one man is imprisoned for eight years for assault and battery while his wife has moved on. Another is a smuggler who believes he has changed for good since. The third is sentenced for theft alongside his father, and tries his best to keep his partner around for when he is free. As much as these stories are for their children’s enjoyment, they are also to reflect and re-imagine their own lives, and as therapy to try and regain the family they had.

What takes this storytelling endeavor one step further is when the prisoners use their time on leave to turn their stories into short films that they send home. They are able to turn their sentences at least partially into a time to create art, and that art helps to keep a family waiting for them upon release. While they are apart from their families and struggling to keep touch,the art created is authentically creative, blending animation and live action filming to assemble the stories however they can.

Even when the sentences length is punitive, this beautiful way of staying in touch shows the power of rehabilitation as justice. Though it is not mandated, the three men have chosen to create a way to learn and create that allows them to maintain a family relationship to return to after they are released. Though Tales from the Prison Cell doesn’t fully transcend form as much as the creation of the short films, it highlights the power of art to bring family together, and for finding an outlet for personal growth.

TALES FROM THE PRISON CELL is now available to stream at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, as part of Artscapes program.

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