Casabianda is currently the only prison without bars on French soil. Guillaume Massart filmed a documentary La liberté (In the Open).
Casabianda is currently the only prison without bars on French soil. This detention centre, located on the east coast of Corsica in Aléria, extends over about 3700 acres where the inmates live and work. Opened in 1948, it can house up to 194 individuals who go there to finish long sentences for sexual offences against family members. There were 135 of them when Guillaume Massart filmed them for his documentary La Liberté (In the Open). We asked him three questions.
The film went from being one of scenery to one of portraits, from an observation documentary to a conversation documentary.
Prison Insider. You made a documentary about Casabianda prison in Corsica, the only open prison in France. What was your plan?
Guillaume Massart. At first, I intended to shoot how an open prison operated: its layout, how work is organised, discipline. At Casabianda, the inmates work in the fields, so I planned to film the outside, which is why filming was staggered over the four seasons. I didn’t dream of filming the inmates. The vast majority of them (80%) were sentenced for sexual offences against family members, and the remaining 20% committed other ordinary law offences. They all carry out the last years of their sentences – between three and five years on average – and I was convinced that they would refuse to openly appear as they might then be recognised once released. I imagined that the only one to talk to me would be the prison administration, but the statements recorded in the film are exclusively from the inmates. I kept my distance in the yard, planning to show the scenery with silhouettes in the distance.
I had a breakthrough with the documentary when one of the inmates invited me to his cell for some coffee. I found myself in his room, not able to set up a tripod, at close quarters. Having been invited by an inmate rather than inviting myself into his space changed everything. The film went from being one of scenery to one of portraits, from an observation documentary to a conversation documentary. I understood that the necessity of shunning the appeal of wide-open spaces and moving away from that “postcard”. What is most interesting about Casabianda is the essence, that which continues to be when the characteristics have been removed.
PI. Why call this film “La Liberté" (In the Open)?
GM. The word “liberté” has several meanings. We often use it without managing to define it. I ran into this difficulty when translating the title into English, before taking the film abroad. It is impossible to translate the word “liberté” into English: you have to choose between liberty and freedom, and I didn’t want to decide. The film is thus called “In the Open”, which means “outdoors” as well as “in public”, like for a debate which is held in public. The multiple meanings of the word “liberté” make it rich and perfectly suited to this documentary: the film takes place in a prison which simulates liberty, about individuals who took liberties, with whom we discuss the concept of liberty. However, no one knows what this word means.
I know that the title creates uncertainty: is it ironic or philosophical? This uncertainty reflects Casabianda: pathways without fences, bordered by a simple sign that the inmates do not pass. It’s a feeling of liberty, an artificial liberty.
The penalty of incarceration is meant to be a deterrent, but it is only a symbol, a fantasy.
PI. According to one of the inmates, reintegration entails relearning everything prison unlearns. Is the Casabianda prison at odds with this paradox?
GM. There is a real paradox between talk of reintegration and the infantilising way the prison functions. The process of reintegration is all about relearning the actions and customs of daily life, like doing laundry. Reintegration is “fitting in with the crowd, being like everyone else.”
But Casabianda is not fundamentally different from other prisons. Certainly, the bodies are less constrained, and the horizon is clear, but apart from these aspects, the prison has no particularity: the labour organisation is standard, the buildings are open in the morning and closed at night, there is a dining hall and a laundry room, as in all prisons. There are no more staff, means or healthcare. The distinctive feature of Casabianda is the fact that all the inmates work, most often in the fields.
As one inmate explains, even though the view is clear, there is a “retinal persistence” of bars. Prison only exists through formalities; it is a marker in space. The penalty of incarceration is meant to be a deterrent, but it is only a symbol, a fantasy. If prison was truly dissuasive, penal institutions would not fill up over and over, as has been the case for decades.
Interviewed by par Ester LevyTranslated by Maura Schmitt and edited by Victoria Tice.