One of the first images (but not the very first — I’ll discuss that one later) in At Night I Fly is recycled footage, shot from the perspective of the train tracks, of a locomotive passing overhead. The shot is more than apt for the subject matter of the film: like a prisoner, the train is bound by iron and a slave to the path before it, its destination a foregone conclusion. Oppressive and threatening, the image mirrors life in prison, in which inmates find themselves tied to the tracks by their decisions and actions — or the misfires of the justice system — earlier in life. Searching for meaning and understanding in this unnatural state, many prisoners stick to the violence and mentality that landed them incarcerated in the first place. These are the characters that populate many of the prison drama movies and TV shows. But others seek enlightenment through reflection and self-expression. For many of the prisoners at California State Prison, Sacramento (previously known as “New Folsom”), this means engaging in the Arts in Corrections Program.
The train footage is accompanied by a poem read by inmate Spoon Jackson, a convicted murderer serving his sentence at New Folsom. Jackson had previously served as the subject of the film Three Poems by Spoon Jackson, a short from director Michel Wenzer which inspired and led to the development of this longer doc. At Night I Fly features interviews with several inmates, but focuses more on the routine, menial life inside the prison and the goings-on at the Arts in Corrections’ room. This includes a variety of activities, from poetry readings to gospel singing, even open discussion. The subject of the inmates’ art is the same as art elsewhere: the attempt to understand and accept the circumstances of life, however shitty they may be. One man recites a poem about his strained relationship with his mother, another man sings about getting laid. The content is both universal and foreign at the same time. Everyone can understand a complicated maternal relationship; everyone can understand horniness. But the unique predicament of these men, and the state of mind responsible for it, is what makes their art both fascinating and “important” (read as: deserving to be the subject of a feature-length documentary).
New Folsom (referred to colloquially as “home” by some of its prisoners) is a maximum security prison, a fact reinforced throughout the film — like when an associate warden warns the filmmakers of the institution’s refusal to recognize hostages, or through the recurring shots of a correctional officer, Mini-14 rifle in hand, pacing a command post like a character in a Bond film or Tom Clancy novel. But despite these scenes, and archival footage of several riots and fights on the prison yard, day-to-day life at New Folsom seems remarkably pedestrian. Prisoners exercise, perform their duties, get treated to Kool-Aid. The dichotomy between these scenes and the archival footage creates almost a Manichean portrait of the prison. Though many inmates strive for improvement and wish to avoid conflict, the environment they live in is tense and volatile, a township built on the slopes of a dormant volcano. The inmates find solace and peace in the Arts in Corrections program, a space where they can be honest and passionate, without fear of retribution or judgment. On paper, the film seems exciting and new, with promises of illumination and an examination of the prisoner psyche. But in execution it’s nothing more than a retread of familiar prison issues: race, identity, recidivism, violence, gangbanging. While this is not necessarily a bad thing — these are potent topics that contain unnerving truths — it can make the film slightly less interesting.
The very first image in the film (not counting the dedication) is that of a bird, gliding through the air. The camera follows the bird as it circles and soars, dips and rises. Shot from a distance, the footage reveals the extreme mobility and liberty of the bird. The freedom associated with flight, and to a lesser extent, birds, is not lost upon the inmates of New Folsom (the film is named after one of Spoon Jackson’s poems, after all). A particularly solemn and endearing scene shows Jackson admiring and feeding pigeons from the captive side of a chain link fence. (The freedom motifs are piled on.) But more important than the existence of this documentary is the existence of the Arts in Corrections programs. A resource with an invaluable purpose, it allows the inmates the necessary dream of flight. It gives them hope when they are surrounded by hopelessness. Yet in 2010, due to budget cuts, the program was cancelled and its wings were clipped.