For 11 weeks in a Catalan prison, seven prisoners and seven law students participated in a twohour weekly session of dialogue that started with philosophy but turned towards life’s experiences. What began as an academic exercise ended as being judged as the best Spanish documentary at the film festival which concluded last month in Barcelona.
“I wanted to take my law students to the prison so they could experience what they have been studying in their books about justice,” says Sira Abenoza, professor of sustainability, business ethics and social entrepreneurship at Esade Business and Law School in Barcelona. The philosophy course of the law school (in co-operation with the Catalan Department of Justice), led by Abenoza is called `Philosophy Behind Bars’ (the original name in Catalan is Filosofia a la preso).
This academic year, 2015-2016, the course is being offered twice -Autumn term (in progress) and Spring term. The first course was offered in 2013-2014 and second time in 2014-2015, when the documentary was filmed. It was Abenoza’s idea to film the interactions at Lledoners in Manresa (Barcelona) as she saw a lot of potential in it for larger society. The school joined Mediapro and Catalan television to take it forward.
The film won the best documentary at the 60th edition of the Valladolid International Film Week, which closed on October 31, 2015. On November 9, the film premiered in Barcelona and on November 10, the Sense Ficcio show on Catalan television broadcasted it on prime time TV.
“The groups were diametric opposites: each inmate had a difficult life story that was reflected in his gaze, while the students found themselves facing, for the first time, what they had previously only studied in books. For both sides, it was a journey of knowledge. In the end, the main theme that emerges is the difficulty of truly reintegrating inmates into society,” shares Abenoza.
In the documentary, a student questions the inmate’s right to freedom by saying “you gave up that right when you committed a crime.” But her professor asks whether society has the right to judge and condemn prisoners or should prejudices be put aside to hear their story?
The documentary, which combines clips of the law school sessions with stylised portraits, tracks the evolution of each participant through the process, from the initial reticence and prejudice to an understanding that the truth is complex and cannot be reduced to a stereotype. “The film portrays two groups breaking out of their respective bubbles to try to understand the other’s reasoning,” says Abenoza, adding, “after all the most important person probably for the inmate is his lawyer and they need to trust each other.”
At the end of the sessions, a student says: “When you go in there and talk to them, and you start to understand their background -not understanding what they did, but understanding their background -your perception changes. Society often speaks from a position of ignorance.” Students are required to write diaries during the course as part of the academic requirements to obtain credit. The inmates who participate are encouraged to do so as well.