With stark black and white photography Punishment takes us inside Norway’s Halden Maximum Security Prison where four inmates have volunteered to take part in a three-week retreat. The silent retreat will be guided by two prison chaplains and is meant to allow the inmates a chance to slow down, look inward, and face what led them to their respective crimes. This is a ponderous, yet rewarding documentary that is a case study on the role of humanity within incarceration that is truly eye-opening.
The four prisoners, all men, lumber into the converted facility. This will be their home for three weeks. They are not to speak above a whisper if they speak at all. The syllabus that they will follow is based on the Christian faith and the common bible, yet all faiths are fully welcome. The rules are laid down and time begins to slow down. At least for us the viewers anyway. We acclimate to the speed of prison life and we realize just how much time has on one’s hands while locked up.
The exercises begin and the personalities of the four inmates come out. One discusses his youth, and how criminal life gave him a family and a belonging. Another laments his actions while showing no real faith in any sort of god. All of them dutifully adhere to the schedule but their eyes give commentary.
The silence is, initially, a welcome change from the constant noise and interaction forced upon them in the general jail population. Then they are faced with the hard work of looking into their abysses. What they find is far more damning than any jury or any life sentence. In a gut-wrenching scene, one of the inmates considers reaching out to his victim’s family through mediation. He quickly concludes that even if they are open to contact, even forgiveness, it will never remove the guilt that he feels.
What was so refreshing was to see the human kindness shared with these four men and how it allowed them to heal. As the chaplains patiently walk the four individuals through daily activities they speak with them to allow a process to occur. What emerges is a relatively simple solution to the complex problem of incarceration and rehabilitation. Given the time and patience, it would seem that anyone’s better nature could be discovered.
Director Øystein Mamen makes a huge ask of his audience with Punishment. We are asked to slow down and live the prison pace. We are then asked to open our eyes and ears despite the lack of sound and color. We are then guided to open our minds to the idea of forgiveness, if not for these inmates but for ourselves. Punishment is an important documentary shot with care and definitive craftsmanship. It should be required viewing for any prison warden worldwide looking for a better solution to rehabilitation.
Review Score – 7 Out of 10