‘Herman’s House’: The Tolls of Solitary Confinement

“I can only make about four steps forward before I touch the door, and if I turn in an about face at any place in this cell, I’m gonna bump into something.” As Herman Wallace speaks, you see a black screen at the start of Herman’s House. Angad Bhall’s documentary goes on to make visceral, if not precisely visible, the small space this Angola prison inmate describes. Living in solitary confinement for over 41 years, the 71-year-old Wallace corresponds throughout the film with artist Jackie Sumell, who has made it her life’s project to build the house Herman has imagined, the house he might move to when he’s released, and also to make public his cruel and unusual punishment with gallery installations, a series of replicas of his tiny cell.

The film looks at intersections between art and experience, imagining Herman’s experience in black and white images of reenacted memories, a childhood viewed on TV screens and through bars, and also, out in the world, tracking Jackie’s own memories, her return to a home where she was abused and her pursuit of land in New Orleans where she might live and perhaps, someday, build Herman’s dream house. At the same time it notes their connections, however, the film insists on the sometimes devastating distinctions between creation and destruction, hope and pain.

Screening at the Doc Yard on 17 June, followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Angad Bhalla and premiering on PBS’ POV on 8 July, Herman’s House also traces the emotional ups and downs of their relationship, their philosophical and spiritual debates, their persistent efforts to understand one another’s very different experiences. “Everybody here has an agenda,” observes Wallace in one phone call, his voice sounding over one of Jackie’s shows at a fine, white-walled gallery full of visitors, “Jackie has an agenda, Jackie has a career, and one can very well say the same thing about me, that I am using Jackie in order to highlight my own struggle in order to highlight it, to the point that where it would serve to help my freedom.” His capacity for honest self-reflection is one reason he’s become a mentor at the prison, helping inmates to cope with and also learn from their incarceration, and a visit with one such former inmate and his mother testifies to Herman’s life-changing instruction.

Still, Herman’s House sets such instances of uplift against his constant loneliness and confinement, the essential and ongoing loss that shapes his life. Herman, one of the Angola Three, his long-term solitary confinement an example of how irrational the punitive penal system can be.

RATING 8 / 10