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Socialism Today 140 - July/August 2010

Institutional violence

Dog Pound

Directed by Kim Chapiron

Released on 27 August 2010

Reviewed by Manny Thain

VIOLENT, TENSE, relentless. That’s Dog Pound, a film set in the fictional Enola Vale correctional centre, Montana, USA. By French director, Kim Chapiron, it is the result of a year visiting juvenile centres across the US Midwest with his writing partner, Jeremie Delon. Visually arresting and intense, with strong lead performances, Dog Pound keeps you glued to the action. It is not an easy watch. This film is about young offenders, and staff, brutalised by a system from which there seems to be no escape.

The opening sequence introduces three of the main characters and how they end up inside: Davis (Shane Kippel), 16 years old, for drug dealing; Angel (Mateo Morales), 15 years old, for violent car-jacking; Butch (Adam Butcher), 17 years old, for a vicious assault on a probation officer. After that, Dog Pound plunges into the bleak, remorseless world of Enola Vale.

This is an us-against-them environment: inmates versus the guards. There are bullies, too, intimidating and dominating fellow inmates. There is fear. There is revenge, patiently prepared, exacted in the most brutal manner. A consequence of the unyielding regime is that the viewer’s sympathy gets rooted on the side of the youth, despite their many flaws. This is reinforced by the fact that there are no discernible efforts at rehabilitation. The main guard, Goodyear (Lawrence Bayne), seems to be well-meaning deep down. But that side of his character has been buried by years of institutional violence. It is also clear that there are domestic issues in his life. It can only end in tragedy.

Thankfully, there are a few scenes which are genuinely funny and poignant: an escapist sexual fantasy shared as a night-time story with rows of frustrated adolescent males; a game of dodge-ball to let off steam revealing childish delight. They offer up some welcome respite but the relief is temporary, never allowed to linger. There is also an instinctive solidarity, a distorted class divide with the inmates as the oppressed majority pitted against harsh rulers. This spills out into a tense finale in the mess hall. The inmates sit at tables, their food trays empty, on hunger strike against inaction after an inmate is killed by a guard. The tension ratchets up, almost unbearable, before it breaks out into a full-blown riot. Wardens in riot gear deploy tear gas and batons. A door slams out the outside world, seemingly forever.

Chapiron says: "We were going for authenticity, and so we wrote a lot of the dialogue during the shooting. Half of the kids in the movie were from real juvies. So we wrote a lot of the film on set, with them there, feeding off them". He also says that Lord of the Flies, the film by Peter Brook (of the book by William Golding), was one of his references. In that story, school children marooned on an island degenerate into warring groups. The message is uncompromisingly pessimistic: competition and warfare are the natural order of things; human society inevitably degenerates to barbarism.

Essentially, however, Dog Pound is a remake of the 1979 film, Scum, directed by Alan Clarke and starring Ray Winstone, shifting the action from Britain’s 1970s borstals to 21st century USA. Indeed, the plot and development follow very similar courses and some scenes are practically identical. Of the 16 main characters, half even have the same name – including not-so-common names such as Angel, Goodyear, Eckersley, Meakin, Greaves and Sands. In its day, Scum was highly controversial for the level of violence. In some quarters it was criticised for exaggerating and sensationalising the grim conditions faced by locked-up youth.

Chapiron won the Best New Narrative Filmmaker award for Dog Pound at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, New York. It is not an innovative film. It is, however, very well put together. Dog Pound is powerful. And if, like its predecessor Scum, it helps to lift the lid on the brutal incarceration of young people, if it stirs up some controversy and triggers debate and investigation, it will have served an important purpose, too.


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