Sometimes a story is so tragic that it needs multiple media versions to encompass its depths and traumas more fully. Herman Wallace’s more than 40 years of solitary confinement offers just that kind of story.
Solitary confinement isolates a prisoner within a 6-by-9-foot cell for 22-24 hours a day. Prison guards provide the only human contact. Length of confinement ranges from days to weeks, but can extend to years or even decades, as in Herman’s case. The psychological effects of this punishment are devastating.
Herman’s story has inspired an art installation, a documentary, and an interactive documentary. In 2003 artist Jackie Surnell asked Herman, “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot-cell for over thirty years dream of?” Based on his answers, Surnell created an installation titled “The House that Herman Built.” That installation later inspired the documentary film, Herman’s House, directed by Angad Bhalla.
From the National Film Board of Canada, The Deeper They Bury Me: A Call from Herman is an interactive documentary that extends Herman’s story with solitary confinement. The Deeper They Bury Me, created by Anghad Bhalla and Ted Biggs, places users at the other end of a phone call from Herman. They listen to Herman’s own words, and they also can explore scenes from his past and present, including a room in his dream house.
This web-based interactive documentary begins after clicking “A Call from Herman” on the opening screen, and Herman previews his experiences, talking about his cell, its size, and his lack of freedom for even in that one hour outside his cell, he is in chains. He says, “I can only dream — that’s what the house is all about.”
After his introduction, a phone rings, and a green prompt tells users to answer. The automated voice of the prison phone system tells the name of who is calling, how to accept the call, and how long remains on the call. A 20-minute timer counts down in the lower right of the screen. At various times the automated phone voice interrupts to remind users of the time remaining.
The visual component consists of a gray space with sketches in the foreground and background within a 360-degree circumference. The background sketches set the prison scene with guard towers and fences. The foreground images offer thematic modules about Herman’s background, though some only become active after completing the available modules first, possibly in attempt to control the timeline. Some images include a wagon, shackles, justice scales, prison guard tower, a house with a rose, and a bird cage with an open door.
Some modules, like the wagon, offer an audiovisual sequence, including archival footage and music, with Herman’s voice explaining his upbringing. Other modules encourage more exploration with highlights around objects that grow brighter and emit a sound effect to encourage clicking on them. These objects then offer another angle to Herman’s experiences as connected to the item.
In the rose house, for example, appears a mock-up of Herman’s ideal bedroom, with an open layout, a nearby greenhouse, and a generous bathroom. Objects include a book, bearskin rug, greenhouse, and a bathtub. For the most part, clicking objects results in more commentary from Herman. With the bearskin rug, for example, he admits that he would get rid of it because he sees it as inhumane. With the bathroom he seeks something much larger than his cell. On clicking the book, however, a series of interviews with prison architects and similar experts plays, and they discuss both Herman’s house, the psychology behind it, and their own prison designs. One expresses some regret in designing solitary confinement cells.
The solitary isolation cell offers another space to explore. The clickable items include a light, the door, a potato jar, toilet, and a Malcolm X poster. With the potato jar, for example, Herman explains how he would keep a potato and how it compares to a fish in a small aquarium. Both confinements limit potential growth. He then compares them both to his own existence: “It’s the same thing with human life.” As Herman speaks, animations illustrate his comments. Herman discusses prisoners committing suicide, and an animated noose swings by. As he discusses the constant surveillance, even while on the toilet, large, animated eyes appear.
If users fail to click on anything in a timely manner, excerpts from Herman’s phone calls play, or Herman will ask about them still being there. Within each section a progress bar oddly counts the time elapsing, not remaining. Users can toggle this timer to listen to different parts of the audio, or they can click an arrow to return to previous screens.
Navigating the space created within The Deeper They Bury Me requires some care, especially with touchpads. I attempted to interact this piece on a laptop, and when trying to “look around” the space using two fingers as I usually do for scrolling, the interface would often send me back to the previous screens. Switching to a mouse eliminated this problem.
The timer from the prison telephone system as a unifying device offers mixed results. On a narrative level, it integrates users into the experience, giving them a dedicated role and thus a more immersive experience. On an interactive level, though, the timer continues counting throughout the “call,” and the automated voice interrupts whatever plays in the module. But 20 minutes is not enough time to complete exploring all the sections and listening to all the comments. As the timer winds down, the interactive documentary sends users to the epilogue no matter their location in the modules. Perhaps that is the point, though it remains unclear.
This interactive documentary operates largely without instructions on how to engage with its materials. The few titles and text blocks that do appear connect with the story, but they do need more balance between exposition and instruction. The “Hear more from Herman” button, for example, offers no clear indication of what that button might do. That “more” might refer to essays, external links, or even a restart. It actually sends users back into the experience without the timer.
Herman Wallace spent 40-plus years in solitary confinement. After appeals and declining health, Wallace was granted release October 1, 2013. He died just three days later, on October 4, 2013. All three of these multimedia materials tell his story and raise awareness about the horrors of solitary confinement.