13TH, a new documentary film directed by Ava DuVernay, has become the first nonfiction film to open the New York Film Festival. The festival frequently premieres works which go on to win prestigious awards at other festivals. Previous opening films at the festival include The Social Network in 2010 and Life of Pi in 2012 — both winners of multiple Academy Awards — and last year’s The Walk.
DuVernay previously directed Selma, nominated for Best Picture and winner of Best Original Song at last year’s Oscars. She is the first black woman to direct a film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and the first black woman to win Best Director at Sundance (in 2012 for her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere).
13TH documents the history of mass incarceration in the United States from the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, to the present. The Amendment reads:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
DuVernay focusses on the punishment exception embedded in the law’s language, arguing that this exception allows for modern injustice in the legal system. From slavery to labour exploitation, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, the methods vary, argues DuVernay, but the theme is constant. The same patterns reappear in each era — just in different disguises. Today, corporations profit from punishment and prison labour in a system that disproportionately criminalizes black people. The film indicts both leading presidential candidates for their roles in shaping this history.
In a press conference on the night of the film’s premiere at NYFF, DuVernay spoke about the process of creating the film, whose existence was a secret until the festival announced it as its opening film. Creating 13TH started for her the day after the Oscars last year — ‘which is appropriate’, she added. It was the direct invitation from Netflix to shoot a documentary that proved the impetus for starting the project. It was ‘something I never thought I’d experience’, she said about Netflix’s invitation to direct the project and their offer to provide the monetary resources to do so. She credited this shift from asking for money in order to create films to being offered it to the success of Selma, but added that while ‘most people think I was born with Selma’, she noted that her early works were in fact documentaries.
DuVernay wanted to direct a film about prison ‘because I… grew up in an atmosphere where prison was always present [and] talked about’, and the film started as an exploration of the for-profit aspects of the prison industrial complex. She credits the Black Lives Matter movement, however, with ‘ask[ing] us to interrogate it more deeply’, and the film took on a new shape as a deeper historical exploration. ‘I just followed my whims in making it… followed my own curiosity’, she said.
13TH premiered at the New York Film Festival on 30 September and was released on Netflix on 7 October. NYFF, hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, runs until 16 October. ■
Watch the Trailer for 13TH:
Featured Image: Activist and professor Angela Davis in 13TH, which premiered at NYFF this year. Netflix.