Music project a stepping stone for prisoners
24 March 2014
“You’re not signing up for a holiday. I’m not here to be your friend. I’m here to give you this opportunity and get you to step out of your comfort zone.”
This is what Julian Arahanga, director of the television documentary Songs From the Inside, tells the prisoners about to take part in a ten-week music programme teaching them to write, sing and record their own songs.
Before they can participate in the programme, the prisoners – six women from Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility and six men from Auckland Prison – have to agree to be named and to declare their crimes on camera in what is the second series of the documentary currently screening on Maori Television.
"Giving the students a voice"
“We’re giving the students a voice, an opportunity that many of them have never had. But it’s not a free opportunity. It comes with demands,” he says.
The documentary is filmed as the action inside the prisons unfolds. There are no scripts and no refilming. It’s Julian who is the quiet voice in the background of the documentary asking the prisoners, “What did you do?” and “Why are you doing this programme?”
Julian also directed the popular first series, which screened on Maori Television in 2012 and has been internationally acclaimed. In this first series, prisoners from Arohata and Rimutaka Prisons participated.
“It’s a really rewarding show to make and there are victories every week. We’ve been a part of the students’ journeys. We’ve seen them reach their potential, and how happy and proud they are of their work.”
He doesn’t feel comfortable talking about rehabilitation. Instead, he describes the project and the process the prisoners undergo as a stepping stone. “If we’ve helped them to get to the next stone, then we’re proud of what we’ve done.”
With this second series, the process was streamlined. There are seven lessons instead of ten, culminating in the recording and presentation of the CDs to the prisoners.
In this series, Julian, the musicians and the film crew established a trusting relationship with the prisoners more quickly.
“With the first series, it was the first time it had been done and it took longer to break down their reserve and suspicion,” he explains. “A lot of the students had also seen the first series and knew what was required of them.
“The musicians’ job was to teach music. My job was to find out how the students were feeling on that particular day, what they had learned and what they were getting out of the process.”
The four musicians in this series
In this series, the four musicians teaching the prisoners are Anika Moa, Annie Crummer, Don McGlashan and Laughton Kora.
A key element in the programme’s success is the calibre of the musicians, Julian says. “In both series, the musicians have been fantastic. I’ve been blessed to have them and they’ve brought such a great attitude to the project. They are also hugely talented and magic happens when they start playing and singing.”
Annie Crummer, for instance, says that Songs From the Inside is the most important project she’s worked on. “My intentions going into this programme were to give, give, give. The result of giving came back to me. I ended being the one learning.”
Julian describes the project as “rewarding but emotionally challenging”. To ensure the emotional safety of everyone involved, Jim Moriarty of Te Rakau Hua o Te Wao Tapu Trust advised the musicians and the film crew at the beginning of the project. In addition, they debriefed at the end of a session.
“We always had an eye on the students and where they were at on a particular day,” Julian says. “Corrections’ staff on the ground were also very helpful in briefing us about any issues and they assisted us immensely.”
In the first series, all the prisoners were Maori. In this series, they are Pākehā, Māori and Pacific Island.
A theme for each session
Each session starts with a karakia (prayer) and a waiata (song). The musicians then introduce the theme for the session (e.g. freedom, commitment) and everyone spends ten minutes writing in a journal about that theme.
The students then break into groups and work on developing new songs based around the day’s theme before coming together with the whole group for feedback and discussion.
“I wanted to retain the Maori kaupapa of the first series but I also wanted it opened up to everyone,” Julian says. “This shows that Maori can be a part of the solution: things done in a Maori way can be done for everyone.”
Songs From the Inside is produced by Awa Films. It screens on Maori Television on Fridays at 9.30pm.