Mothers of Bedford
March 17, 6:30 p.m., $5-$10, Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge Ave., Ridgefield, (203) 438-5795, ridgefieldplayhouse.org
Women are the most rapidly growing population behind bars in the U.S., and 80 percent of those women are mothers. Jenifer McShane's Mothers of Bedford looks with compassion and a sense of humanity into the lives of five incarcerated mothers at the Bedford Maximum Security Prison, the only such prison in New York state. (The film shows in the Ridgefield Playhouse Film Society on Sunday, March 17, at 6:30 p.m., and will feature discussion with McShane, editor Toby Shimin, and other guests from the film. EMMY-winning journalists Ira Joe Fischer and Morton Dean host.)
Following the progress of five imprisoned mothers — Anneatheia, Melissa, Mona, Rosa, Tanika — the film creates mini-portraits of how the women cope with their situations, giving us background on their cases and moving toward some resolution for each. The film doesn't dwell on the crimes for which the women are imprisoned — which range from assault to second-degree murder to manslaughter — and only one of the women claims she was wrongfully accused. The purpose of the film is not to dispute the sentences, but to show how these women have found positive support in prison, so that, in every case, the experience is a true rehabilitation. And to show that a mother can be a mother wherever she is.
One important factor that makes these women's experience unique is the Bedford facility itself. Thanks in part to Sister Elaine Roulet, founder of the Children's Center at Bedford, there is a child-friendly area in the prison where incarcerated mothers can spend time with their children. The space looks like a kindergarten and provides the kind of environment, familiar to most childhoods, that the mothers and their children need. There is also, crucially, a culture of support at Bedford thanks to the efforts of professionals like Bobby Blanchard, a former lawyer who spends much of the four years covered by the film as a mentor, nurturer, and advocate for inmates with children. Both of these women appear in the film and are inspiring presences.
Together, Jenifer McShane and editor Toby Shimin have created a film that skillfully engages the viewer with an intimate sense of the featured women. The film is necessarily restricted in terms of its location, and yet McShane and Shimin manage to involve movement and variation, not simply in moving among the different women, but in varying shots and cross-cutting to avoid static setups. The way the highly mobile camera follows characters and inhabits the spaces of their lives is quite remarkable. We have access to scenes that give a definite sense of each woman's character.
We see the women involved in the mundane activities of mothering that are for them unique events and sometimes few and far between. Visits are precious to the children and mothers both, and the excitement around special events — such as a Mother's Day visit — is well-rendered by the film, taking us with Rosa's sons Joey and Jacob as they travel with their grandmother to the prison. An event like a conference call with Tanika's teachers about her son's grades is given an almost comical suspense, while the sheer length of Mona's 25-five-year stretch is impressed upon us, montage-fashion. The extent to which the women — Mona and Tanika particularly — involve themselves in the life of the Center helps to focus on the positive community that so many women work to sustain.
The family members of the inmates also get screen time, and whether it's Anneatheia's older daughter complaining about having to live with her aunt, or the story of Anneatheia's mother's struggle with addiction, or a tour of Melissa's parents' preparations for their granddaughter, Emma, who was born in Bedford and lived there with Melissa for her first 16 months, or the comments by teachers about Rosa's son Joey and his positive character, the film finds a way to make the stories personal, as well as meaningful beyond the persons themselves.
We see the commonality of the women's plight as well as the singularity of each individual case. For three of the women, we are treated to their release from prison. A certain sadness surrounds the scene in which Bobby Blanchard bids farewell to Melissa — we can't help feeling that her friends in Bedford may have offered Melissa more emotional support than her rather conventional parents. At one point Melissa's mother mentions her doubt that she could love a grandchild born in prison. Wisely, McShane gives us some follow-up so we can see the extent to which Melissa and her daughter reintegrate with the family. We literally see Melissa's mother mellowing with the years.
Inmates, the people behind Bedford believe, should not be deprived of the joys of parenting, and McShane's film is a testament to the need for women to help other women, whose specific needs can be easily overlooked.