Secret Cinema

Back at the start of November I went to Secret Cinema. For those that don’t know, it works like this: you buy a ticket and turn up at a predetermined location in character and in costume; details of who you are and what you should wear are sent out to you in advance, like a fancy dress party. You are then plunged into the world of the film you are going to see. Locations have been found that resemble the film. For two or three hours events from the film play out and you’re right in the middle of them. It’s very realistic, with high production values and lots of hired actors mixed in and interacting with the punters/extras. Only there’s a twist: you don’t know what the film is. It’s a secret. The mystery and the immersion make it a very different way to see a film.

They’ve now finished the ‘secret’ phase, and gone public with more shows after the success of the film I saw ‘live’, The Shawshank Redemption. It’s a long film about Andy Dufresne, an innocent man wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder, and serving his sentence in a the brutal and corrupt Shawshank State Prison. The story itself is clichéd in places, and so is its portrayal of guilt and innocence, but the performances make it good enough company, and there is a terrific twist.

But as Mark Kermode says on his Radio 5 film show, there’s a whole lot of Shawshank before you get any redemption. The prison is brutal, some of the events depicted  (which rely on familiar prison clichés) are brutal, and as a result, parts of the live event were brutal too. This video, shot at the event, will give you an idea of what I mean:

After arriving in the ‘prison’, and before watching the film, there are a couple of hours during which where you can wander the ‘set’, exploring different parts of the prison, exchanging your ‘library cards’ for ‘illicit’ alcohol and food, and entering the infirmary, the warden’s office, the chapel, the refectory, and so on. In one section of the ‘prison’ was a workshop by the Craftivist Collective, teaching prisoners/punters to stitch small embroidery pieces, which will later be sold to raise money for Fine Cell Work. Elsewhere there was a similar thing going on with Arts Against Extraditions making Christmas cards, and English PEN organising letters being written to imprisoned journalists and writers. There are links to support prison charities in a brochure we were all given at the end, as well. So far, so laudable.

The time we spent in the ‘prison’ was interesting. I noticed a slightly gormless, disconnected look on the faces of ‘prisoners’ as they circulated: grinning at the audacity of the whole thing, thrown out of their usual social confidence by uniformed anonymity, delighted by the depth of the simulation, interacting with the actors, exchanging tokens from the ‘library cards’ we had bought for ‘illicit’ miniatures of whisky and bottles of beer. The details of the set were there for us all to explore: an ‘infirmary’ doubled as a bar; in the ‘refectory’ we were served three baked beans on metal trays then given the chance to swap tokens for hot dogs; the ‘chapel’ was filled with bibles open at a passage mentioned in the film; the warden’s office was filled with fake currency and dodgy account books like those prepared by Andy Dufresne.

In addition to the edification provided by the charity workshops described above, various other diversions were on offer: in the prison ‘laundry’ actors re-enacted a violent rape scene from the movie; in the parole office and later in the prison yard, ‘officers’ took booze from ‘prisoners’ who wanted to bet on gladiatorial combat between two planted actor-prisoners.

I deliberately contrast gentle charity-oriented activities and the re-enactment of violence for entertainment. As the evening went on, I was uncomfortable about how fake and real, truth and artifice were made to sit alongside one another. It’s not that I think mock violence has no place in entertainment – I think it can be and often is used legitimately. My unease came from a feeling that Secret Cinema tried to have it both ways. There is a difference between prison – the real site of real suffering and real guilt, regret and punishment; and ‘prison’ – an artistically constructed place, corresponding in some ways to its real-life inspiration, but selectively exaggerating some aspects of it for dramatic purposes.

Drama is not a facsimile of reality. Theatre and cinema make big claims when they purport to reproduce reality. In this case, it undermined the suspension of disbelief that makes them successful forms of make-believe, and turned reality into a playground. Blurred boundaries between true and false meant the fictional events of the film, for me, recalled real events with terrible, irreversible consequences.

In the case of Secret Cinema, dressing up your punters as prisoners is close to the bone, but might serve a serious purpose if it was not undermined by the fact that the evening was ultimately all about entertainment. Prison films are based on a debasing, dehumanising reality, and often get around it by basing the drama on the simplistic idea that all prisoners are either guilty or innocent. When they do, it follows that the suffering they endure is either deserved and expiatory, or undeserved and sanctifying. That allows powerful narratives to be constructed. As a dramatic device, I think it’s legitimate, but it’s not real. The Shawshank Redemption is not, I would argue, ultimately a film about prison; instead it is a film that plays out in a prison, but is about endurance and friendship and hope.

And in some cases, reality is so awful that it becomes very hard to legitimately stage any kind of reconstruction.  If the film had been Schindler’s List, dressing them in striped pyjamas and forcing them through fake showers would have been in excruciatingly poor taste, and a certain minimum of respect for drama’s subject matter is necessary.

I think The Shawshank Redemption (the film) keeps on the right side of this line, since it’s a fictional work. But The Shawshank Redemption (the live cinema experience) didn’t, since it tried to connect fiction with a reality that it did not resemble or respect. The involvement of the charities at Secret Cinema felt half-hearted, an afterthought, perhaps tacked on at the end when someone running the event realised that they could be open to accusations of staging misery for entertainment. I don’t think that would have been a valid accusation had the event been merely fictional and dramatic. But they couldn’t have it both ways.

The primary purpose of the evening – alcohol was one indicator – was as entertainment, not reality. And it’s impossible to make serious points about the plight of prisoners and suggest to an audience they should engage more with that, if you’re also getting them drunk and amusing them with play fights in the process. In the end, both reality and the drama are mocked.

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