Film shows role for prison art
- Published: March 11, 2010
As a filmmaker who has experienced some success and some challenges, Joanne Caputo has occasionally asked herself the question, “Am I an artist?” It’s perhaps a feeling she shares with her nephew, John Caputo, who is the focus of her latest documentary. As a prisoner for 11 years at the Graterford and Harrisburg penitentiaries in Pennsylvania, John Caputo would say that art in some ways saved him. But in making a life after his release, he wonders if he is truly an artist or simply an ex-con who makes art.
A public screening of Caputo’s film, “Cutting Loose,” about the incarceration and release of her nephew and the influence of art in his life, will take place at the Little Art Theatre on Friday, March 19, at 5 p.m. The film is a 40-minute cut, after which the filmmaker will engage participants in a feedback session. The event is free and open to the public.
When Caputo learned that her nephew would be participating in a Graterford prison art show at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002, she was moved to document an event she felt to be positive and worthy. She was in the middle of editing her first documentary On a Roll, about a radio talk show host with physical disabilities, which aired nationally on PBS’s “Independent Lens” series in 2005. And she didn’t know where a film about her nephew as a prison artist would lead, or whether he would even agree to talk to her about it. But she went, camera in hand, to support a man who had been on a tough road for a long time.
It turns out he was willing to talk. And with the camera rolling, he spoke candidly about being so institutionalized that he refused parole when it was offered to him in 2000, choosing instead to focus on creating hundreds of detailed miniature figurines out of pencil wood, tongue depressors and other found or confiscated objects in the prison. He began with bicycles with gears that were small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. He made cars with engines, ships with sails, treasure boxes with triple hinges and, for the art show, a prison cell with two bunks, a toilet and bars. He said he had intended to put a man in the cell and hang him.
Caputo returned several times a year after that, continuing to interview John and his family. She was there in 2004 when John decided to exercise his parole option, the same year his father, Dave Caputo, a Vietnam vet, was getting treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. She was there during his first week on the outside, getting acclimated to a new decade of clothing, cell phones and women he didn’t know how to approach. Caputo also filmed when John got his first job in a barbershop in Pittsburgh, and then bought his own shop from an elderly man who helped teach him how to run a business.
Meanwhile Caputo wrote and published Margaret Garner, a book about the parallels between her life and that of Margaret Garner, and she continued to publicize On a Roll, which will screen this spring at Israel’s first film festival for people with disabilities.
John continues to maintain a life outside of prison, but he is constantly tested to maintain control of his anger and to develop self confidence. And as he takes his barbershop on the road with a satellite truck, it becomes apparent that the art he was creating in prison has been channeled into the art of entrepreneurship.
Still, John does not fully embrace his artist self, and Caputo herself is also challenged to discover what the ultimate purpose of her film will be. PBS wasn’t interested because of a current abundance of projects related to prisoners. Over the winter an executive at HBO agreed to review a 50-minute version of the story, but last month the company confirmed that the film was too long and did not contain enough high definition footage to interest their viewers.
And yet Caputo feels strongly that prison policy is a problematic issue in the U.S. Currently two out of every three prisoners who are released nationwide return to prison within the first year. According to an article last summer in the Washington Post, many states are responding to budget cuts by shortening probation and granting earlier parole to prisoners who have had very little training on how to function successfully as a responsible adult, Caputo said.
Her nephew, for one, has had a supportive family and a good work ethic and has managed to build a stable life. And though she doesn’t know where the film is destined to be, if the thought that someone making a film about him helped John to believe in himself a little more and stay on track, then it was worth it, Caputo said.