Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo

Sweethearts Of The Prison Rodeo

***1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Over the years, director Bradley Beesley has made numerous music videos and a midnight movie (Christmas On Mars), but most of his feature output has consisted of documentaries: one on Mississippi blues-punk record label Fat Possum (Hill Stomp Hollar), one on the Oklahoma alternative psychedelic band Flaming Lips (Fearless Freaks), one on a taken-for-granted ritual of the American vacation (Summercamp!), and two(!) on the Oklahoma practise of catching giant catfish with one's bare hands (Okie Noodling and Okie Noodling II) – which is to say that when seeking subjects for his films, it is the marginal and the overlooked that tend to enter Beesley's focus.

So it is not difficult to imagine the thematic attractiveness for Beesley of the prison rodeo at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary – one of the last of its kind in the world, and the first, since 2006, to allow female convicts to take part alongside their male counterparts in its rough-and-tumble events. Granted access behind bars to male and female prisoners as they prepared for the 2007 rodeo, Beesley allows his documentary to follow the underdog-addicted narrative arc of most American films on sport, carefully documenting all the obstacles to success before climaxing in personal triumphs at the big event itself and beyond.

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It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss this documentary as just another affirmation of the American dream, or, indeed, as some sort of voyeuristic glimpse into a bone-shattering bloodsport that, with its more desperate than usual competitors, many regard as having an unsavoury 'gladiator quality' about it. On the contrary, Beesley uses his conventional frame to cast light on people who normally have no voice, on issues that have few public champions and on 'inside' perspectives that invert expectation.

For a start, there is the gushing enthusiasm of the inmates themselves, who regard the rodeo not as exploitation but as a rare, liberating opportunity both to leave the confines of prison grounds, and to see - not to mention impress – their loved ones among the spectators. Then there is the frankness, regretful yet never self-pitying, with which the participants discuss their crimes, their boredom, their hopes and their broken families (the last often leading to, as well as stemming from, the first).

Ever sympathetic towards his subjects, Beesley contextualises their individual stories with facts and figures concerning Oklahoma's rate of incarceration in general and of female incarceration in particular, and of recidivism - all higher than the national average – and he also alludes several times to the state Governor's record of keeping convicts in prison beyond the recommendations of his own parole boards.

Much of this, of course, has only the most tangential connection to the rodeo itself, but unlike convict Jamie Brooks, punished with withdrawal from the team for her possession of contraband lipstick, Beesley can be forgiven – even praised – for covertly smuggling in such materials, and so bringing real socio-political weight to what might so easily have been just a curiosity piece. For there is, in the end, so much more to this documentary than just a bunch of bull.

Reviewed on: 03 Oct 2009
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Documentary tracks the preparations for the Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo in the second year that female cons are allowed to take part.
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Director: Bradley Beesley

Writer: Bradley Beesley

Starring: Danny Liles, Jamie Brooks, Brandy Witte, Crystal Herrington, Monty Baker, Rhonda Buffalo, Irven Box

Year: 2009

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

London 2009

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