Women Behind Bars is Amina Benalioulhaj’s documentary about the women in Oklahoma’s prison system. Benalioulhaj met with skepticism as she set out to make the film based on the startling statistics gleaned from Dr. Susan Sharp’s research.
Her professors at the OU women and gender studies program supported her efforts, but outside that circle many people thought she wouldn’t have the means or experience necessary to produce the film.
“Not many people thought I could do it,” Benalioulhaj says. “Especially because I don’t have a film degree. I’m not a film student. I’m a women and gender studies major, so I didn’t really have much experience with filmmaking.”
Yet Benalioulhaj approached documentary filmmaking like activism. Viewing the documentary as the ideal medium for critical pedagogy, she thought it was the best way to inform an audience and to connect thought with action.
Inspired by films that had influenced her, Benalioulhaj was eager to get behind the camera and give the issue her best effort. She learned a lot along the way from production work to carrying herself professionally. Benalioulhaj also had to navigate a lot of red tape just to get inside one of Oklahoma’s prisons to shoot parts of the documentary. Although she had many people helping her on the set, she participated in a little bit of everything and learned much about the filmmaking process.
“My hope is that this film will be used to teach people in class room settings,” she says. “That is why we limited the film to a 40 minute piece. We wanted it be something that could easily screen in an hour-long course with a professor at the college level – or even in a high school sociology class. I think we met our goal.”
Other aspects of the documentary include music donated by local musician Penny Hill. Another contributor is slam poet Lauren Zuniga. Zuniga wrote a poem based on her own experiences with law enforcement, observations made at these prisons, and research she’d found through studies.
The poem is about the third time Zuniga went to jail over a set of photos she’d forgotten to pay for as she was checking out of Walmart. She’d said she offered to pay for them once she realized that she’d forgotten them in the diaper bag, but the security guard was unsympathetic. Zuniga has never served time in prison, but she is familiar with the realities that incarcerated women and their families face. Zuniga has performed her poetry in prisons through a program called Girl Scouts Beyond Bars. The program takes Girls Scouts to see their mothers once a month for two hours.
“I was watching these mothers and these daughters,” Zuniga says. “And I felt I was imposing. I didn’t want to take this time away from them. They’re sitting in the bleachers brushing their daughter’s hair and doing these things they never get to do, and I didn’t want to interrupt this. So I told the woman that organized the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars how I was feeling and she asked ‘when are they ever going to have the opportunity to sit and watch a performance together like nothing is wrong and enjoy some entertainment?’ And I said all right I’ll do it. And some of them listened and some of them went off and did their own thing.”
Associate Producer, Cassie Ketrick, adds that women’s issues are often overlooked in Oklahoma. Ketrick says Oklahoma has high rates of domestic violence, women killed by men, teen pregnancy, and incarceration. And while these incidents may appear on the news, Ketrick feels this documentary gives these women a voice not often found in mainstream media coverage.
Kertick says that as she worked on the film she discovered preconceived notions about the kinds of people who are incarcerated. As work continued on Women Behind Bars, and as she talked with more imprisoned women, Kertick notions about the type of person incarcerated changed too.