The phrase “labor of love” gets tossed around a lot, but it’s hard to think of a more apropos application than the documentary A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Prison, which is having its long-awaited theatrical premiere on Sunday, August 7, at Portland’s Cinema 21.
The film was directed by Bushra Azzouz, longtime lead faculty at the Northwest Film Center (now PAM CUT), and was shot at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, Oregon. There, in 2010, theater actor and director Johnny Stallings mounted a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cast composed entirely of male inmates. Azzouz captured the remarkable process of rehearsal and performance, during which many of the performers discovered or displayed humanity and vulnerability in powerfully affecting ways.
Sadly, Azzouz did not live to see the finished product. She passed away in 2019 from breast cancer. But before she died, she entrusted the completion of the movie to a pair of friends and colleagues from the Film Center: Ellen Thomas, the center’s longtime Education Director, and Enie Vaisburd, a professor who has taught at Pacific University since 2008.
In their spare time, Thomas and Vaisburd strove to shape the dozens of hours of footage that Azzouz shot into its final form. (Thomas is credited as Post-Production Producer and Vaisburd as Post-Production Director, while Azzouz retains sole Writer and Director credit.) The result is an unexpectedly moving document that chronicles the creation of a unique community. In that way, it serves as a worthy testament to the work Azzouz did during her decades at the Film Center, helping to mold a filmmaking community that will no doubt be ably represented in the audience at Sunday’s screening.
I spoke, separately, with Stallings, Thomas, and Vaisburd about the long and winding road that has led to the premiere. Some of their responses have been edited for length or clarity.
OREGON ARTS WATCH: Johnny, describe the origins of this project.
JOHNNY STALLINGS: For thirteen years, from 2006 to 2019, I went to prison every week. I kind of stumbled into it. I toured Two Rivers and volunteered to do a performance there. And the inmates invited me back. I had the idea of dialogue group. Every week I’d sit in a circle with twelve or fifteen guys, and we’d talk about the Big Things. A certain kind of conversation can be therapeutic, even more so in prison, a very isolating place where the conversation isn’t always very elevated. Some people don’t know that you can have a conversation where you ask each other about your lives and thoughts and feelings.
OAW: Did you have difficulty getting authorization from the facility to have these meetings?
JS: No, because they didn’t have anything happening at that prison. I was not on the radar. After two years, one of the guys in the circle asked me if I’d like to direct a play with him. At that point we were on their radar, and they had to meet with me and go over what the ground rules might be. I think that was the first time in history that inmates at an Oregon prison had put on Shakespeare. We did Hamlet in 2008 and the next year I proposed that we do A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and they said no. No explanation. We went back to having the dialogue group, but then a year later I heard that a new person had joined the administration and she had asked why we weren’t doing plays anymore!
OAW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems more challenging to pull off in that environment than Hamlet.
JS: It was scarier for me. Hamlet is almost ideal as a prison play. It takes place in a castle. There’s only two women in it. It’s dark and brooding. Hamlet even says that Denmark is a prison. But in Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s all these lovers and women characters and fairies. It’s outdoors and it’s full of magic and joy and love complications. That seemed more risky. But the guys had tremendous fun with it.
OAW: At what point did Bushra become interested in the work you were doing?
JS: Bushra was one of my closest friends. She had come out and seen Hamlet. We were in Mexico together, and she knew that we would be starting rehearsals for Midsummer Night’s Dream when we got back, and she asked if we had plans to record it. I said I hadn’t thought about it, and she eventually decided that would be her next project. And that was a huge commitment.
OAW: Ellen, how aware were you of Bushra’s work on the film during the production?
Ellen Thomas: I knew she was working on it, but we’d had no creative discussions about it. There was no formal affiliation with the Film Center. Bushra would crew up in Portland and take her team out there, about eight times over the span of a few months. A lot of it was Northwest Film Center-based, because that’s where all her students and collaborators were. She would come by my desk and say, “I’m going to prison this weekend, do you know if so-and-so’s around, because I’m looking for another sound person.” Bushra loved the grassroots process of creating something.
OAW: Ellen and Enie, how were you enlisted to help finish the movie?
ET: It was a day of infamy for both of us: May 29, 2019. Bushra has not been teaching for a while. She’d had three different bouts with breast cancer. The third one showed up in January of 2019, and she knew the ability to treat her again would be very compromised. She had been in Mexico, but she came home and started working on the edit more vigorously than she had been. She was hoping to get it done before she couldn’t get it done. In May she asked us to come over. We went to her house, in Southeast Portland, just off of Belmont, on May 29 at 1:30 p.m. Her husband, Andy Larkin, greeted us and said that Bushra would be out shortly. A few minutes later, her caregiver wheeled her out. I’d never seen her in a wheelchair before. On her lap she had a hard drive. Enie sat on her left and I sat on her right, and she popped open her laptop. She looked at us both, and we knew. She said, “I would really like you to get my film done for me.” We both said something like “Of course,” but I don’t really remember. And we got down to the work of figuring out how we would do it. There was no discussion about whether we would. And that was it. She died two weeks later. We didn’t talk to her again.
EV: The thing that I’ll never forget is that physically she was very, very fragile, but she was so so clear about what she envisioned. We were all very emotional, but luckily we took a lot of notes. I was asked to complete the film on her behalf, and the whole time my focus was twofold. One focus was on Bushra’s vision and the other was on the trust she had in me. She had looked in my eyes and said “I trust that you will understand this vision of the heart of this story and share it.” Because I had to make decisions without her physical presence, but with her in my mind as a collaborator, because I knew her so well and she knew how I worked.
OAW: How far along had Bushra gotten in editing it?
ET: She had a notebook where she had assembled a “paper edit.” She had seventy hours of footage, and she had been looking at it for several years at that point. She had done quite a bit of work on it. We were both relieved.
OAW: How close do you think you came to that paper edit, or the vision Bushra had in her head?
EV: If that paper edit had become the film, it would have been about five hours long.
ET: What I recall is Bushra saying, “I don’t know what format to take. This could be a five-episode series.” I’m thinking, we’re going to really have to raise a lot of money! And then she says, “Or maybe it could get cut all the way down to an hour.” So, we were in pretty open territory there.
EV: I knew that for Bushra, the film was for the participants, the prison residents, and their families most of all. The film shines a light on the humanity of the participants. The idea of transformation was really important to her, too. She would say, “We tell ourselves the story of who we are. But we can transform that story.” Being able to reimagine yourself is like freedom. And that is what I carried through the whole three years working on the film.
OAW: What were the first steps you took when you began working on the film in earnest?
EV: In the beginning, Ellen and I created a team and started building the film. The first editor I worked with was Lauren Mueller, which was fantastic. She assembled a short proof of concept for funding. Johnny, accompanied by Andy Larkin and myself, and with the proof of concept in hand, introduced the project to Ronni Lacroute. Because of her generosity, we had funding to complete the film.
ET: We needed help beyond ourselves. And we had these incredible people step in. Johnny is the executive director of the film’s fiscal sponsor, The Open Road. The treasurer of The Open Road was also in on the conversation. Andy, who’s a visual artist and a printmaker himself, was pulled in, too. We wanted somebody who could carry Bushra’s artistic-sensibility torch forward. Miraculously, we’ve worked together for almost three years and we’re still functional and we still love each other!
OAW: One fascinating aspect of the production is the way that issues of gender and masculinity emerge, especially in the context of gay and trans inmates and the fluidity required for the play’s female and faerie roles.
JS: This was a safe place inside a dangerous place, a place where everybody was on equal footing, no matter what your crime was, no matter what your race is, et cetera. Prison, like college, has a really good potential for introducing you to people who aren’t from your little town. And theater and dance have always been havens for gay men.
OAW: Of course, this film serves as a tribute to Bushra, so tell me about what kind of a filmmaker, and what kind of a person, she was.
ET: She was really a process-oriented person, and so is Johnny. I think that’s what they enjoyed about each other. Filmmaking, for her, was an incredibly political act. It isn’t about getting a great shot, or catching a great line, it’s about doing something that is going to create conversation between people. That is what she was using film to do.
JS: She didn’t have an agenda in the sense that she wanted to tell a certain story, where all she had to do was put the pieces together to tell the story she had planned to. Her documentary methodology is, you shoot the thing and then you watch it and watch it and watch it until the stories come to you.
OAW: And that perspective informed the financial and collaborative aspects of completing the film.
JS: As soon as we had gotten permission from the Department of Corrections to shoot the film, Bushra said to me, “I don’t like to raise money, so that’s going to be your job.” So, I became a producer, and we raised enough money the first couple years to cover our costs and pay the people who shot it.
ET: There are about 120 individual donors listed in the end credits. In those credits there are no foundations, no corporate sponsors; it’s total grassroots filmmaking. And now, we’ve got a couple hundred bucks left in the account, and the film’s done. It’s a miracle! Enie and I were not and are not on the payroll, but we did have the capacity to pay the editors who sat there in chairs for hours and hours working on practice edits. The first one was Lauren Mueller, who knew Bushra very well. She worked on it for about a year, but then she got a full-time job with Irene Taylor Brodsky [the Portland-based, Oscar-winning director of Hear and Now] that she couldn’t turn down. Then Cam Williams stepped into the role. To be clear, Enie was always the executive editor, and eventually she had to shape the final product while working full time at Pacific. The heroic work she did on this really needs to be called out.
EV: Lauren continued to collaborate with me for a while, based on Bushra’s paper edit. At one point, we had to step out of what we had and step into the essence of the film. I kept reading my notes over and over again—I have them in front of me as I talk to you—and then ask what this film is, how to shape it into a narrative. It’s different than what Bushra was thinking three years ago, but it’s actually the same. It still has the heart of the idea. When Cam, who is also my husband, joined as an editor, he brought an amazing attention to detail and economy. We finished the cut and then brought in Jake Buff, the colorist, and Wayne Woods as the sound designer and mixer, to finish the film.
One of the great things about the process is that to me, it’s really a ripple process and a community process, like film should be. I believe filmmaking should be about lifting and sharing and collaborating, the same way that Bushra did with me. The person that composed some of the music was a former Pacific University music student who is now starting his career, and I used some of my students’ hand-processed super-8 footage as parts of the dream sequences in the film.
OAW: What’s next for the film?
ET: That’s what we’re thinking about—what would Bushra be doing with this film now? Taking it out on the road and having lots of conversations, I’m sure. She did have a national distributor for her very first film, And Woman Wove It in a Basket, but I think she and her collaborator on Women of Cyprus personally took it around. They self-distributed it.
The film did just get its first national award. through the ImpactDocs award program. It’s a juried panel that creates distinction for films that it would like to see get out there, and it’s a huge honor to have a panel of such caliber recognize the film. We haven’t even premiered it or heard back from any of the festivals we’ve applied for, but we got this award!
OAW: Some of the cast members discuss their past lives and touch on how they ended up incarcerated, but most don’t. I assume that was a conscious choice.
ET: I know that Bushra and Johnny strongly wanted to have a safe space. They decided up front that the reasons these guys are in, and the crimes that they committed to get there, were not what this was about. It was about them in the moment, deciding to be in a Shakespeare play, and following that process.
JS: The most natural question for anybody who has been or is in prison is, “What are you in for?” And when you’re in prison, everybody knows what your crime is. I never asked anybody that. It was completely irrelevant to what we were doing.
Almost everybody who was in the play said at some point or another, “I can really relate to my character! Her problems are exactly like my problems!” Or, “He’s got the same personality as I do!” They all felt that they got cast in the perfect role. Tex [a 6’11” inmate who plays the Wall through which Pyramus and Thisbe whisper their love] had the most interesting explanation for this. I thought he’d say he was perfectly cast because he’s a big guy. But he said it was because he’s somebody who connects people together, and that was something he’d always done, so it felt right.
OAW: During the whole time, did you ever doubt that this moment of completion would come?
EV: Every day I say to myself, “Bushra, we finished it.” Every day. And when I say it, I can’t believe it still.
OAW: The screening will probably feel like Old Home Week, with so many former Northwest Film Center colleagues likely to attend. With the pandemic and the changes over at PAM CUT, I imagine this will be the first time in a while that this community has had a chance to meet in person. How do you think that will feel?
ET: It’s a moment that would not have happened if there weren’t a Northwest Film Center, that’s for sure. And it’s an almost perfect example of how films got made because of the Northwest Film Center and the relationships generated there. I do want to call out Tom Ranieri at Cinema 21. When it finally became clear we would need a venue, I heard Bushra say, “Well, just call Tom!”
We both were channeling Bushra, and we still are. One thing she used to say to students, when they were freaking out about their work, was “Trust the process, and everything will be okay.” That’s what Enie and I had to say to ourselves. And it was okay. It’s bigger than this project. It’s a way of thinking about the world, and about life, and that’s it: Trust the process. If you can’t do that, don’t try to make films!
EV: It will be a celebration of life, of Bushra, and of our partnership in all of the work that we did together. It’s almost a way of saying, “We were here. We are here. We exist.” Ellen created this film school, and she hired an Iraqi filmmaker, and a Brazilian Jewish filmmaker, and the three of us worked together for more than a decade. Look at the ripples.
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Prison will have its theatrical premiere at Cinema 21 on Sunday, August 7. Several of the cast members will participate in a post-film Q&A session with Stallings.