Review: ‘Conviction’

Hot Docs 2019

3 mins read

(Canada, 78 minutes)
Dir. Nance Ackerman, Ariella Pahlke, Teresa MacInnes
Programme: Canadian Spectrum

A film about Canadian women prisoners made over a couple of years, Conviction is a touchingly personal view of inmate life, if somewhat scattered in its focus. The project involves three filmmakers who, we are told in an early title card, went into two Nova Scotia women’s prisons with art supplies, a musical therapist and filmmaking tools with the intent “to understand why” women are the fastest-growing population of prisoners worldwide. The question, once posed, is then mysteriously dropped.

Instead, we see women prisoners singing, writing haikus, performing rap songs, and chronicling life on video with tiny handheld cameras. These clips offer little exposure to the day-to-day experience of prison life, but focus on moments of turnaround: new beginnings and high-expectation, struggles on the outside for lodging or avoiding substance abuse, episodes of remorse and expressions of self-affirmations. The most harrowing of these stories is the progress of one young woman’s pregnancy while in custody. Yet, even at a spare 78 minutes, the film has a lot of transitional material here, including blurry images out of car windows, overhead bridges and orange sneaker-shod feet on a concrete floor.

Some snippets of conventionally useful information are provided by the recurring presence of Kim Pate, a lawyer and former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, who offers unsurprising data about women in jail. About half of them are racialized, a majority are mothers, and many are dealing with addiction, mental health and abuse issues. During the film, in November of 2016, Pate became a senator and we hear part of her maiden speech, advocating for better treatment for women prisoners.

Otherwise, the most promising thread in the film is a series of group meetings, overseen by Pate with the collaboration of an architect, Anne Sinclair, in which in the women inmates present their ideas for a community-style facility that would be both rehabilitative and cost-effective. The plan is never implemented, but it appears that the process of making plans, and feeling a sense of ownership over their futures, is a confidence booster which helps change their lives.

Conviction screens:
-Sun, Apr. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Mon, Apr. 29 at 1:15 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Thurs, May 2 at 12:30 p.m. at Hart House

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!


Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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