Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Prisons make good settings for documentaries, from critical hits such as Aileen: The Life And Death of A Serial Killer to more general investigations such as last year's Shakespeare Behind Bars. As a crowded genre, it must be tough for directors to come up with new ways of expounding on porridge life, but Brian Hill has certainly managed it with Songbirds.

Tracing the "bad girls" at Downview Prison in Surrey, Hill has collaborated with poet Simon Armitage to conduct documentary interviews with the women prisoners, as well as help them to tell their stories through music.

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Hill has been in similar territory before with Feltham Sings, a documentary/musical about a young offenders institute, and Pornography: The Musical, which received a lukewarm critical response.

Here, he talks to several of the girls about their lives, loves and hopes for the future. These intimate and very moving portraits are intercut with segments of song and dance, as each woman's story finds a voice, from rap to lullaby.

The interviews seem to home in on one of three key factors - drugs, domestic abuse and mental illness - and yet the musical segments have an underlying sense of hope and self-awareness.

The main problem is that the end result feels just a bit too glossy, aimed at the MTV generation who can't cope with watching something serious unless they're treated to a pop video every 10 minutes. While you wouldn't want to dispute the veracity of the interviews and the tragic circumstances which surround most of the women, you can't help feeling that the more negative aspects of their stories are being left unsaid, in order to ratchet up our sympathy.

The film clearly raises questions about the nature of sentencing in the UK - two "duped" drug mules, for example, are serving a mind-blowing 18 years. It also calls rehabilitation into question. Several of the repeat offenders say they "couldn't cope" on the outside, while one says she'll only reoffend if she doesn't like it back in society. Plus, the collaboration with the prisoners on the musical segments doubtless went some way to helping them find a voice.

Ultimately, however, Songbirds has a bit too much spin to be a classic.

Reviewed on: 17 Jan 2006
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Women prisoners tell their stories in song.

Director: Brian Hill

Writer: Simon Armitage

Starring: inmates of Downview Prison

Year: 2005

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: UK


Sundance 2006

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If you like this, try:

Shakespeare Behind Bars