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MOVIE REVIEW: Ghosts...Of The Civil Dead [1989] by Rob Miller (On The Street) Print E-mail
Sunday, 13 August 2006

Welcome to Hell

"At least the line was clear before, enabling you to see who the enemy was and where to focus your protest. This is a more insidious type of control - they've dissolved the boundaries."
Director John Hillcoat, on new generation, high-tech gaols (jails).

"Jails are the Crime"
-Graffiti on the wall near Railway Square.

Overpowering, uncompromising... relentless like bad speed or a living nightmare you can't escape... Ghosts... of the Civil Dead is not a pretty film. Neither escapist, sugar-coated or voyeuristic, Ghosts makes its observation about new generation corrective institutions with all the dull, repetitive force of a jackhammer. As for the prisoner, so for the viewer - nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

And yet, despite the absence of concessions to viewers more accustomed to sensory titillation than this rancorous assault on the senses, Ghosts is an exceptional film, truly one of the most realistic and frightening cinematic depictions of the prison experience then you're ever likely to see. It is the next best or, perhaps more accurately, the next worse thing to actually being there!

Set in Central Industrial, the latest model in 'safe, secure and humane containment', Ghosts is not so much based on Jack Henry Abbott's In the Belly of The Beast as infused with its spirit of righteous outrage and repudiation of the fundamental inhumanity of incarceration. In Ghosts, the empty rhetoric of the new-fangled, hi-tech 'humane' containment; layers are being systematically ripped away to reveal the savage and cruel reality of imprisonment.

Into Central Industrial comes a new inmate, Wenzel, convincingly portrayed by a promising young actor, David Field. A state of emergency has been declared, and all inmates are indefinitely confined to their cells, after the 'latest wave of violence that has plagued the institution for years.' The drug supplies dry up and the prison televisions are shut off. As the tension mounts, we watch the transformation of Wenzel from a young thug to a fully-fledged murderer.

Pretty soon we find out from one of the wardens that this is a deliberate and systematic strategy by the Prison Administration to provoke the inmates. The provocation is stepped up - all personal property is destroyed, a cage is built in the recreation area in full view of the prisoners and a psychotic inmate played by Nick Cave is introduced to the gaol (jail). As the tension becomes unbearable, the inevitable happens - two inmates are violently murdered. Finally in an orgy of blood-letting, a warden is cruelly stabbed to death by a psychotic inmate, and the gaol is placed on total 'lockdown' status.

"From my point of view," explains David Field, the actor who plays Wenzel as we sit drinking coffee in his Bondi flat, "I think it's incredibly important for young people to see the drastic change that Wenzel undergoes during the film. We really wanted to challenge the Rambo audience, who see violence as sugar-sweet. The beauty of Ghosts is that you see that violence is a personal thing, not as something that only has impersonal consequences."

Field puts in a flawless performance as Wenzel. The vacuous, hypnotised prison gaze, combined with the simian physicality of the con, who works out every day, makes him indistinguishable from the real thing, even though David has never been 'inside' himself, except as a visitor. "I found we worked with so many ex-crims," explains David, "watching them act was the only way to learn how to act. I reckon if you're a good con you'll probably make a great actor. If you're a good actor, you might get by as a con-if you're lucky!" Especially horrendous is the scene in which Wenzel has 'cunt' tattooed across his forehead as retribution for an attack on another prisoner. This is not a film for the faint hearted!

Obviously there is a lot of interest in how Nick Cave acquits himself in his first real 'acting' performance in a film. Certainly he puts in a creditable performance as the psychotic Manyard, whose unrestrained craziness pushed Central Industrial closer to the brink of a riot. Yet it is Dave Mason's performance is Lilly, the prison transvestite, which is the real tour-de-force, called upon, as he is in one scene to passionately kiss an incredibly mean-looking fellow inmate - challenging stuff! Bogdam Koca, as Waychek, the prison's drug dealer, is also fantastic.

In fact, Ghosts is full of fabulous performances- Dave and I both agree, that it's the ex-cons, who steal the show! Freddo Dierck is just brilliant as the chain-smoking gaol tattooist, who tells Wenzel to do his time 'out-of-it' as he's getting a skull tattooing scene. The arm you see being tattooed actually belongs to one of the scriptwriters, Gene Conkie.

The film was made with the assistance of some 50 ex-cons and needless to say, there are some extraordinary stories from on the set. Tony Redford, who plays Posner, one of the prison officers, is an ex-cop who, at one time, actually arrested one of the other members of the cast! This situation caused some tension on the set, and scheduling had to be devised to keep the two apart!

Then there's Evan English's apocryphal story about a 50 foot wall he constructed, upon which was painted 'Welcome to Central Industrial'. To quote Evan, "By the end of the week it was a bit tattered. By week three, it was falling down, by week four other words were appearing, two weeks form the end, only pieces of the original and the sign now read 'Welcome to Hell'. It was not an easy film to make. Within it is a lot of pain and anger."

Nor is it an easy film to watch because Ghosts is about the manipulation of violence and the way prison further criminalised inmates. At the same time, the film takes pains to expose the blatantly cynical and corrupt political means by which riots and disturbances can be deliberately provoked for political ends. In an atmosphere of hysteria, the rehabilitative as opposed to punitive approach is never contemplated, as the community cries out to be protected and the calls go up for even more gaols and more warders, more draconian laws and more police to enforce them.

In this sense, Ghosts is also about how corrective institutions perpetuate themselves. When Wenzel is finally set free, it is clear that he has gone from being a small-time thug to a major league criminal with great potential for gratuitous or premeditated violence as a result of his experience inside Central Industrial. Nothing in gaol has prepared him for anything but a life of crime on the outside. As we see him mounting the escalator bound for freedom at the end of the film, we know with complete certainty that he is a time-bomb just waiting to go off, and Wenzel will be back.

As in art, so in life. Even now, our Minister for Corrective Services, Michael Yablsey wants to build more prisons and to drastically reduce the number of people being sent to gaol. Not that people who've broken the law shouldn't have to expiate their crimes, but surely the time has come for the question to be asked - are more gaols really the answer to the problem? Isn't it about time we reformed the prison system, emphasizing rehabilitation as opposed to the cruel torture of the mind and the body? See Ghosts... of the Civil Dead and make up your own mind.

Reprinted without permission. Copyright by Rob Miller, 1989


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