thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

To Make Fit Again: C.K. Mak’s “The World’s Most Fashionable Prison”

In Documentary, Film on November 13, 2012 at 7:22 am

Guest Contributor Paul B.

Given the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival’s historic penchant for extreme sport videos, the screening of Singaporean C. K. Mak’s recent documentary The World’s Most Fashionable Prison was a pleasant surprise. Even more surprising was that a queer prison-film should turn up in Arizona, a state infamous for its privatized, for-profit prisons and merciless lawmen such as Maricopa County Sheriff Arapaio, whose treatment of inmates has been roundly criticized.

Today, “rehabilitation” has shed its Latin coifs for the much hipper “rehab,” but its migration from penal discourse to addiction says less about a change in alcoholism than in prison policy. Not only are almost 1% of US citizens imprisoned (.78%, to be precise), but purgatorial sentencing, privatized prisons, and a greater than 50% recidivism rate each conspire to keep them there. With few exceptions, rehabilitation has low priority with both public and policy-maker discourse where the bottom line is prison costs.

Though The World’s Most Fashionable Prison doesn’t explicitly address US prison issues, its title invites comparison and discussion of global incarceration, of which the U.S. leads the charge. What does it mean, then, to claim that New Billibid, the largest maximum-security prison in the Phillipines, infamous for its gang wars and violence, is “fashionable”? In an obvious sense, the title refers to the plot. The film follows the flamboyant Filipino fashion designer Puey Quiñones as he teaches inmates how to sew and design clothes for their own fashion show. “Fashionable,” however, also conjures up the innovative, trendy, and unprecedented, and in this sense, the film praises Quiñones’ collaboration with the prison and prisoners as a pioneering exchange that demonstrates the potential of rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation’s original sense, in fact, is “to make fit again,” which is exactly what happens as Quiñones gives prisoners scraps of textiles, splits them into six teams, and tasks them with designing three dresses: casual, evening, and avant-garde. Skill training is common in other prison-work programs, but how many people charged with violent crimes can say they know the difference between chiffon and tulle? Even more, the class offers a kind of social rehabiliation, providing a safe space for inmates, the majority of whom are gay or transgender, to flourish as individuals and as a community. While prison culture often functionally endorses alternative sexualities, it does not have a reputation for acceptance. “In prison, you are on your own,” one inmate poignantly explains, “No one here is not lonely.” The double negation in this sentence is a fact of life for queer inmates, excluded once from Filipino culture for the crimes they committed and again from prison culture for their sexuality.

Thus, one of the film’s strengths is documenting the gay and transgender subculture within New Billibid and the way outsiders, like Quiñones, interact with it.  George, a gay man to everyone except his wife, introduces the camera to Dorm 82, the prison warden-sanctioned space for gay and transgender inmates. The film succeeds in gradually introducing these characters and showing their dreams and relationships, without dwelling on their crimes. In doing so, it demonstrates the essential role that non-prisoners play in the process of rehabilitation. One transgender inmate wants his boyfriend to find parole, and he successfully persuades Quiñones to advocate on his behalf, resulting in his release. Additionally, the inmate who organizes Quiñones’ class argues that he was wrongly accused of murder, a story the film couches with scenes from his behind-bars birthday party. In contrast to US prisons, New Billibid allows inmates to host events with outsiders once a year, and here at the party, many family members vocalize their support and belief in his innocence. Finally, the Project Billibid Runway event is open to both the prison community and the outside public, leading to a spectacular meeting of fashion celebrities, inmate families, models, and criminals. Without the interaction and support of the outside community, this film argues, prisoners cannot fit again into society.

In fact, in the context of Quiñones 2011 fashion blunder, outsiders may not differ so significantly from prisoners.  Though Quiñones emerged as a provocative young talent, he lost much of his credibility after one of his clients discovered one of his suit jackets had been retagged, the ultimate faux pas in an industry that spies plagiarism in patterns and angles.  How does a fashion designer fallen from grace make himself fit again? A cynical reading of the film might admit that charity-stunts have rescued the reputation of other celebrities, but Quiñones has coordinated Project Billibid Runway since 2007, long before he needed to rescue his reputation. Further, the film inverts the dialectic of outsider-inmate when prisoners begin one class with grateful letters to Quiñones; almost in tears, he admits, “I have 5,000 friends on Facebook, but I think I can only count on my hands the real people, my real friends, like here.”  One subplot of the film features an inmate imprisoned for fraudulent labeling, an uncanny echo of Quiñones’ crime. His early release, occurring through Quiñones’ intervention, implies that forgiveness and rehabilitation is possible too for the fashion designer.

Some aspects of the film remain unclear. For instance, it introduces a rivalry between Quiñones and his assistant, though neither develops it to a confrontation nor resolves it with reconciliation. Also, Quiñones began Project Billibid Runway through the invitation of missionary friends and has indicated in interviews that the documentary was an answer to his prayers.  However, the film elides any references to religion for both Quiñones and the inmates, perhaps in an effort simplify its scope, but here it unfortunately misses an opportunity to show how queer this fashion exchange actually is.

Ultimately, The World’s Most Fashionable Prison allows viewers not only to glimpse into another culture’s prison culture, but also to acknowledge that the unimprisoned play a role in determining whether prisoners and ex-prisoners fit again into any culture.  An ex-prisoner from the US recently explained his experience on NPR, powerfully relaying the stakes of rehabilitation: “My family basically abandoned me [after release] because they’re embarrassed by my position. . . . Even employment was very difficult to come by because . . . it’s legal in this country to discriminate based on having done something in your past. You’re never forgiven.” The film offers a contrastingly hopeful message. Its penultimate shot of boys playing basketball near Quiñones’ apartment, which recalls earlier scenes of inmates shooting hoops within prison walls. By yoking these two, the film asks viewers to rethink what we presume and perceive about prisoners, and it invites us to consider what might be a more “fashionable” response.

Paul lives and works in Flagstaff, AZ. He’s practicing guitar and researching trail workers and conservation movements in order to write a musical. Email him any choreography suggestions or correspondence here

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