Tamara Perkins' 'The Trust' is intended to provide a rare lens into the lives of incarcerated men and their families.

Perkins Places 'Trust' in Convicts and Parolees

Michael Fox July 7, 2010

Four years ago, Tamara Perkins was asked to teach yoga at San Quentin State Prison. The program was facilitated by an office in the Alameda County Public Health Department and The National Trust for the Development of African-American Men, an organization that (among its various initiatives) aims to reduce recidivism by having men serving long sentences mentor short-term inmates. “I didn’t know where I was going,” Perkins recalled, “but trusted the people who asked me to come in. It’s daunting going into a prison; you have to go through a number of closed doors. But there was such gratitude from the men that I was wiling to provide instruction that would support their development and growth.” With experience as both a grief counselor and a filmmaker, Perkins discerned the seed of a different kind of film about those who matriculated through the criminal justice system. Shaping up as a three-character, feature-length doc, The Trust is slated for release (pun intended) in 2011.

“This is not an apologist’s story,” Perkins declares. “The men I include must admit to their crime, must be remorseful and on a path toward transformation, and able to talk about that process. So this is not about ‘poor prisoners.’ The men in my film have served 20 to 30 years and are now trying to find forgiveness for themselves, within themselves, while being a support for the communities that they harmed. That’s not what the film’s about, but that’s why I chose these men.”

Backed by a pair of grants from the San Francisco Foundation totaling $50,000 and an equivalent sum raised from small grants and donations, The Trust is intended to provide a rare lens into the lives of incarcerated men and their families. Perkins’ goal is to make a film for general audiences rather than for institutional use or targeted constituencies.

“I don’t think I would be effective to do a policy film or a program film or any of that,” she asserts. “It’s a very intimate film. What’s interesting to me is being able to glimpse into the lives of men, some of them living for the first time as adults as free men, and watching them as they sort of try to walk the talk.”

As part of her strategy for reducing the gulf between subjects and spectators, Perkins has decided to structure the film without a narrator. “I just don’t think the film warrants it,” she says. The men’s voices are so strong, I think it will be more conducive to the story to let them tell it.”

Along the same lines, Perkins is determined to avoid the sensationalist exploitation of her least favorite television program, MSNBC’s Lockup. “I think [The Trust] is going to be exciting and all of these things that we love in mainstream drama, but it’s going to be done in a way that connects you as opposed to creating a greater chasm,” she says.

It’s worth noting that the documentary’s title is inspired not only by The National Trust but by the filmmaker’s mutually dependent relationship with her subjects. “Since I have worked with the prison both as a volunteer and as a service provider, that has allowed me to gain trust from the administration and the incarcerated men,” Perkins explains. Of course, trust is a crucial aspect of any project that depends on the filmmaker receiving intimate access, but somehow the stakes seem higher on both sides with a film about parolees.

When we spoke a few weeks ago, Perkins and editor Diana J. Brodie (who’s also serving as co-producer, along with cinematographer Jesse Dana) were honing the first rough cut to meet the July 7 deadline for Sundance Institute grants. Perkins is already raising the profile of The Trust with some prestigious invitations. The filmmaker showed a clip last October at a national conference on race and inclusion at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, and participated in a panel in February at a conference presented by the Research Institute of Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford Law School, “Three Perspectives on Race and Incarceration.”

“The thing that makes this film so timely and relevant is what’s happening right now in California,” Perkins points out. “The prisons were placed under medical receivership in 2006. The three-judge panel led by Thelton Henderson is looking at overcrowding. More people are coming home from prison, and families have high expectations of them--and they have high expectations for themselves. What is that reception like/ Is there a reception? Can they implement the tools that they’ve been teaching others? In the middle of a depression, no less.” Perkins takes a breath, and chuckles softly. “Hopefully, I want one, if not a couple, happy endings.”

Notes From the Underground
Belated congrats to Nathaniel Dorsky, who emerged as the top-ranked avant-garde filmmaker in a poll of 46 critics, programmers and teachers conducted for the May-June issue of Film Comment. … Geralyn Pezanoski’s Mine won the 2010 Independent Lens Audience Award in a vote of the PBS series’ viewers. … Moviemaker named the United Nations Association Film Festival one of “25 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee” in its Spring issue. … The Mission Creek Music & Arts Festival (MCMAF) presents Kathleen McNamara’s Why Isn’t Chris von Sneidern Famous? Sun., July 18 at ATA with the director present and von Sneidern performing a live set. … Danny Plotnick has a show of his photographs at the Rite Spot Café, the self-proclaimed “Mission dive of elegance,” from July 12-Sept. 4. Fellow filmmaker Jim Granato (D Tour) will be one of the DJs at the reception, Sun., July 25 from 5 to 7 p.m.

Send the lowdown on your festival premiere, television broadcast, major grant award, child’s birth announcement and random gossip to foxonfilm[at] for inclusion in Notes.

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