All my dreams are dreams of violence.
“…There was something once that set me apart… Somebody’s got my whole life and thrown it down a sewer. “
Ghosts of the Civil Dead (dir. John Hillcoat) explores the nature of human evil, through differing examples of punishment and power. Set inside the maximum security ‘Central Industrial Prison’ somewhere in the Australian desert, we meet Weevil (David Field), a new prisoner. He is brought, against his will, into an alien environment where he will have to adapt in order to survive. This new generation of correctional facilities is shown to be the final destination of one’s fateful choices led astray. On his entrance, it seems as though Weevil will have to use his strength to protect himself from the other prisoners, but the audience learns his main enemy is himself. In this prison we quickly learn that one’s own mental state often seems to be one’s greatest deterrent. The audience immediately feels compassion for his condition, as although his crime remains unexplained (to Hillcoat’s merit) it begins to seem as if no actions could warrant such a situation, as it the facility seems purely inhuman - an ‘Electronic Zoo‘1.
Attention is shown to Weevil, a few other select prisoners in the surrounding cells and occasionally the prison guards, swapping between these select first person narrators, giving a unique portrayal of the experience of a modern prison. The direction of the prison, carried out through the guard’s human force belongs to an unseen organisation called the Administration. The film at times is almost reminiscent of the distopian fiction of HG Wells, and more specifically Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, particularly in relation to the city made of glass, as there in no privacy within the world Hillcoat presents to us.
At first the daily life of the prisoner is explored - their personal interests, needs, desires. Prisoners are seen in their cells painting, writing, playing cards, taking drugs, and so on, basically occupying themselves with activities to make their stay more endurable. The camera is seen as unaware, blending in with all the other surveillance present. We the audience, are both on the level of the prisoners but also switching to that of the guards, expressing their fears of prisoner rebellion and at times their own personal safety - thus what emerges is a seemingly even cross section of the powerplay and control within everyday prison life, namely one’s own sense of moral and/or personal ‘duty’, be it to themselves or others. One voice over however, speaks of a ‘new kind of prisoner’ that is truly evil , a breed that has been perhaps generated by the experience of living in one of these new ‘super-maximum security’ technological ‘facilities’ that seem to have no concern over the welfare of its occupants, as the film’s title suggests. Thoughts turn to the mental ‘limits’, if there is such a thing and how those barriers are blurred within the confines of the gaol. The examples of prisoners in solitary confinement is the most extreme, as it is seen as though the administration just simply forgets about these prisoners. The ongoing monologue spoken by a prisoner in solitary is undoubtedly the most harrowing, as they cannot even interact with other prisoners, be that either good or bad, rendering them truly as living ghosts. The prison memoirs of Warren Fellows and Margrit Schiller come to mind due to their experiences of life in solitary and the mental capacities needed in order to come out ‘sane’.
The eyes of the audience reflects the very eyes of the Administration - where no one can hide and privacy is now obsolete. We, the fractured narrator is stuck in ultimate control - control in the instance of being able to see - the unseen by others but all seeing electronic eye of the prison. With this perspective presented by Hillcoat there are ties to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison plan - essentially an architectural structure that has still never eventuated to the exact dimensions he proposed. Michel Foucault explored aspects of the Panopticon as a philosophical concept in Discipline and Punish, revealing it to be the ultimate metaphor for power and control. Bentham’s ideologies were that of an administrative building - be it a school, hospital, or prison, that was centred around a main watchtower that the one could station themselves in order to keep watch on every movement in the surrounding outer rooms. Only the occupants, in this case prisoners, were not aware of when they were being watched. Bentham’s structures of power, thus are about psychological control rather than physical - which makes it all the more prophetic in the times of video surveillance, lie detectors, digital communication and so on. The fear of being watched or controlled by an unknown oppressor is what will, ideally, keep prisoners in check. This is what we see played out in the first part of the film… with the prison guards as the symbolic forces, carrying out ‘orders’ they must enforce. Bentham interestingly stated that ‘all punishment is evil2’ - with violence breeding nothing but more violence. It seems that in most cases the act of punishment is put in place as to set an example for the general population- its usage acts as a deterance - a ‘lesson’ to others that may be tempted; ‘In Bentham’s eyes, punishment is first and foremost a spectacle - it is insofar as punishment is not intended for the punished individual, but for all others, that the execution of a punishment is a spectacle’ p3
We see this in the abject horror of modern society - televised riots with protestors being arrested or tasered.. Shots of crazed killers on death row, etc. As the film progresses we see that this indeed is the case as the prison escalates all of their authority, enforcing “lock down’, removing all prisoners’ sense of purpose - the cells are raided and all interests, crafts, are removed and destroyed. Now there is now nothing for the prisoners to live for and no sense of ongoing, shown through paintings or something to work on each day. Now that exists is only that very moment - and subsequently the focus switches onto other people, rather than introspective creative pursuits. The society’s faith in its government for ‘protecting the innocent’, is seen to have a more sinister edge - one to use the prisoners as a means of psychological control. We see that this new technologically ‘advanced’ prison is more about appearances and political power than rehabilitation, hence the ideology that some prisoners are almost written off as ‘unsolvable’. The further effects are seen particularly through the character of Weevil, as once the raids begin and his civil liberties are removed - in his case both by the guards and other prisoners, he commits the most extreme act of violence.
Meanwhile, the hazy submission and and agonised power of the guards hangs in fine balance. The brutality of the guards is just relative to the fact they are ‘just taking orders’ from the Administration. The guards however, do see the inmates as ‘scum’, they are presented as robots, with no compassion or sympathy for human life/frailty - only when their own safety seems compromised. What results is an environment where everyone is on edge - the lethargy and desperation of the prisoners is played out infront of a captive audience, ie the prison guards. What eventuates is a masculine frenzy with prisoners pacing up and down the tiny cells, feeding off one another’s claustrophobia and feelings of despair.
The point where Maynard (Nick Cave) arrives is where everything seems to splinter, as just one new personality that refuses to compromise or submit to the authority slowly but surely sets everyone off. Many transgressions begin to eventuate - a direct result of the removal of the personal items. The inmates have lost the ability to ‘do’ anything.. Which over time proves either violent or futile - Maynard’s use of his own blood to make paintings for example. The prisoners are desperate for any kind of stimulus other than their own bodies - thus why outward violence becomes prevalent. The boundaries now start to blur - the guards become prisoners and the prisoners take control - the guards now feel the fear presented to the prisoners by them on a daily basis. Despite the task each prisoner has to try and stay sane throughout the duration of their sentence, some are slowly learning of the government’s political imperative - the fact that the sensory deprivation is in aid of sending the prisoners crazy on purpose. That combined with the raids - are denying the prisoners basic civil liberties. They have now reached inhuman status in the eyes of the state - forgotten.
Turkey Shoot, (Australia, 1980) explores this concept in a more fantastical setting, presenting almost a satire of a distopia - however the elements of dry comedy reside in both. Turkey Shoot focuses more on re-education and behaviour modification in a prison camp for ‘Deviant individuals’. The year is 1995, the future, where macoshism and murder games are rife as typical punishment for ‘deviance’ - a blanket term for almost anything. The systematic torture and beatings enacted within the camp are almost nothing in comparison to the ‘Turkey Shoot’, where particular chosen prisoners are set free only if they can endure a day in the surrounding forests as the subject of the camp leaders’ sport targets - as human sacrifices. The camp leaders are shown to be completely hedonistic, stating ‘excess is what makes life worth living, for people like us’. They use the prisoners for their own spectacle, as ‘fresh meat’, the ‘lowest form of life on earth’, within any given context seems actually humorous as it seems they are the only ones committing and such ‘deviant’ crimes. An important parallel between the two films, as they are very differing in matter, tone and form - is the fact - perhaps as they are both films of the 1980s - surveillance and control seem to be escalating with the advent of newer technologies. It is interesting as other films set in prison, notably Bresson’s ‘A Man Escaped’, devotes itself to the act of escaping from one’s cell - something that would be almost impossible in modern times. ‘The ‘administration’ within Ghosts.. is an unseen, almost inhuman organisation, giving the entire film a unsettling, chaotic edge, Turkey shoot presents them as overly present - constantly fawning over the screened executions taking place within the prison, (‘Beats the hell out of Network Television’) the voyeurism almost always having a sexual element.
Within both films the prisoners are seen as a symbol rather than a person. The state must prove their efficiency at getting a certain number of people behind bars that ‘deserve it’ otherwise the people will lose faith in their governments ability to rule. In Ghosts…, it is almost as if one is forced into a corner within the modern prison - the omniprescence/ constant presence even in silence an eerie feeling that something is about to happen would make almost anyone lose their edge. Not only the guards, but the prisoners control the prisoners - we see heavy ties and illegences form - combined with rampant amounts of drug use - a heavy perception of “killing time” while doing time is the only way to get through it alive.
In Roman law, a ‘Civil Dead’ has no legal rights as a person. They are subject to all kinds of punishment, discipline, to the use of a moral spectacle - The ethics of containment are of interest - as it seems that developing animalistic tendencies are inescapable if one is to survive. Thus the fact that one’s attentions turn toward one another with the prison seeming like some kind of halfway house, almost a paranormal like place with its inhabitants teetering between sanity/insanity - life and death - as ghosts are eternal, bound to earth yet unable to participate in its events.
“God permits the crimes to the extent that these crimes cause the good in this world to surpass evil to the greatest degree possible - God permits the crimes to the extent that it is precisely because of these crimes that the created world is the best of all possible worlds” 4
1 p26, O’Regan, Tom Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London, 1996
2 p3 Bentham, Jeremy Panopticon Writings. Verso, London, 1995
3 ibid p10
4 p17 Bozovic, Miran in Panopticon Writngs, Verso, London, 1995