Writer-directors from the Dayton Correctional Institution bring short films to the Wexner Center for a screening and dialogue on art and social change
As a child, Beverly Fears turned to the pen as a means of dealing with trauma, working on a nonfiction story about her experiences with abuse. At least, that is, until a draft of it was discovered by her mother.
“I always wanted to write my story … but one day my mother found it when she was cleaning my room, and she wasn't happy with what was written, so she tore it up,” Fears said by phone from her home in Columbus. “That killed the writer in me for a long time.”
Fears said she spent many of the ensuing years feeling “invisible,” finally recovering a sense of identity when she took part in the Pens to Pictures program beginning in late 2015, at the tail end of a four-year stint spent incarcerated at the Dayton Correctional Institution (DCI). (Fears was released in March.)
“I had already been healed in the areas I was abused and hurt and beaten down … but [the program] helped me rediscover my voice,” said Fears, who wrote and directed the short film “The Devastating Game,” which will be shown at the Wexner Center on Wednesday, Sept. 6 as part of a film screening and director's dialogue on art and social change. “It was the first time I really got back to writing.”
Pens to Pictures, launched by Wright State University assistant professor of motion pictures Chinonye Chukwu in late 2015, was initially conceived as a writing class where participating inmates at DCI would be given an opportunity to craft individual screenplays, and at the end of the course the group would join forces to complete a single short film.
The class started with nine or 10 women, who were each tasked with writing a short story, which Chukwu then critiqued. Over the course of several months — and numerous rounds of revisions — the group was pared back to five: Fears, Kamisha Thomas, Tyra Patterson, Jamie Ochs and Aimee Wissman.
According to Fears, she entered into writing fully believing she would be one of those women who walked away from the challenge.
“It took a lot of courage to revisit [the writing process] because it touched on what happened so many years ago with my mother tearing up my story,” Fears said. “I had the assumption that I would write a story, Chinonye would say it wasn't good enough, and then I could walk away and have my peace, like, ‘Well, I tried.' But that didn't happen.”
Owing to the dedication of those who stuck it out through multiple, intensive critiques, and at the urging of DCI warden's assistant Vivian Covington, who served as a steward and champion of the program, Chukwu abandoned plans to shoot a single movie, opting to have each writer direct her own short film — a massive undertaking that led to stress-induced nightmares (in one, Chukwu envisioned herself locked alone in the prison) and countless sleepless nights.
“Early on in the screenwriting process, Ms. Covington took me aside and said, ‘We can't really choose just one. Everybody has a story that's worthy of being told,'” said Chukwu, who will also be appearing at the Wexner event. “That was when the program as we know it was really born.”
“I was in my office one day and the warden ran in and said, ‘This is for you. You have to come here and meet this lady,'” Covington said during a mid-August event at the Wex where two Pens to Pictures shorts were screened alongside rough footage from a planned documentary tracing the process of creating the films (a slightly longer version of the doc will premiere during the Sept. 6 event). “I went in and met [Chukwu] and she told me what she wanted to do, and I was like, ‘I'm all on board.'”
As the course progressed, the women of DCI adapted their short stories into screenplays before shifting into director mode, where, even incarcerated, they were able to remain hands-on throughout the entire process, making casting choices, selecting shooting locations and blocking scenes. (Each writer-director was paired with a co-director who was charged with handling on-location film shoots.)
Fully aware of the difficulty inherent in opening oneself up in the writing process, Chukwu would start each class with an affirmation period during which the women would embrace their strength, skill and self-worth, allowing any accumulated self-doubts to evaporate. “It was a reminder of our worthiness and greatness,” Chukwu said. “It was important in reestablishing our humanity.”
“One of the women said, ‘[The affirmations are] about breaking down walls,'” said Jennifer Lange, curator of the film/video studio program at the Wexner Center, which partnered with Pens to Pictures to assist with post-production work on the five films. “And once you walk into that room, all the walls are broken down, and it's like I'm a curator doing a studio visit with an artist. I'm not in a prison anymore.”
During class, Chukwu also shared stories from her own journey, including struggles with severe depression and suicidal thoughts. “It let them know I was willing to make myself vulnerable,” she said, “and this was a reciprocal kind of exchange.”
The women responded in kind with unvarnished scripts that tackled issues ranging from sexual abuse (in “The Devastating Game,” which Fears described as “not fully my story, but close,” a young girl endures years of abuse at the hands of her brother) to the anxieties devouring a jobless young woman attempting to find work in order to care for her two young children (“Bang,” written and directed by Kamisha Thomas).
“I was surprised at how raw the films were,” said Wexner Center studio editor Paul Hill, who handled post-production edits on the five films, making weekly trips to DCI for nearly four months to screen various rough cuts and accept director notes. “They were so interested in bringing awareness to the various issues they were confronted with, be it addiction or loss or abuse.”
Fears, for one, said the idea of tackling such difficult subject matter was terrifying but essential.
“Women go through things that can be complex, or are never spoken of. It's a way to shine a light on the struggles women go through, and to show them they're not alone,” she said. “It's important women don't feel overlooked or invisible. I spent a big part of my life feeling invisible, which is devastating in itself. It's important to feel seen and recognized and valuable and real.”
Though each woman was intricately involved in her film's creation, the prison environs bred certain limitations. There wasn't a dedicated space for the class to meet each week, and the room could shift depending on prison needs. The same was true of the inmates. Midway through the process, Tyra Patterson, who wrote and directed “Love or Loyalty,” which itself is set in a prison, was transferred from DCI to a facility in Cleveland.
Access to technology was also limited — there was only a single prison computer with editing software, and nothing could be saved or stored on it — so the editing took place at the Wexner Center production studios.
In addition, Chukwu said it was a constant struggle knowing that at the end of each class she had the good fortune to return home while her students were ushered back to their respective cells. “I was in a very privileged space where I'm not incarcerated,” she said, “and one of the ways we were able to create a safe space was by acknowledging all of that.”
As the class progressed, Chukwu said there were many times she adopted a student's role, embracing the opportunity to have any long-held beliefs or practices challenged.
“Pens to Pictures has shown me my teaching doesn't just have to take place in a college classroom,” she said. “It made me think about why I teach in the spaces I teach in … and added another layer of purpose.”
More recently, Chukwu started teaching a film course at a juvenile detention facility in Springfield, Ohio, and she's considered introducing a Pens to Pictures-like program for her young students there. She also hopes to bring Pens to Pictures into prisons nationwide in the coming years.
It's a sharp growth curve for an idea that hatched small in September 2015 when Chukwu, who volunteered on Patterson's case prior to shepherding her through the Pens to Pictures process, visited DCI and was struck by a simple realization: Most of the women's stories would remain locked up with them.
“Those stories would never leave prison walls,” she said. “We all want to be seen and heard, so why not create this opportunity for them?”
Despite initial reservations, Fears is grateful for the program, which served as a reminder of her strength — “I wasn't aware that I had the ability to overcome obstacles,” she said — and reignited a love for writing nearly extinguished in childhood. In the coming months, Fears even said she hopes to trace her knotted path as a survivor through an autobiography, the first draft of which turned up in the trash at her mother's hands.
“Things happen, but it doesn't have to defeat you, and it doesn't have to be the end of you. You can overcome,” said Fears, who, after her March release from DCI, made her first stop the Potter's House-Dayton International Ministries in order to pray with her family. “I found that [strength] in my relationship with a higher power. I truly believe, for myself, if I didn't have a relationship with a higher power, I wouldn't be here to tell my story.”
This relationship carries over to the big screen in “The Devastating Game,” where the protagonist, searching for courage in the midst of an emotional breakdown, grasps at a cross dangling from a simple chain around her neck. It's a small-but-powerful moment that signals a deep, burning hope amid all the surrounding pain, turmoil and upheaval — kind of like Pens to Pictures.