Answering the Call from Herman in The Deeper They Bury Me

An opening screen sets the background for Herman’s story and sets up the unifying narrative for users.

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.

Three of the modules users can click to learn more about Herman’s story.
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 sketch of Herman’s ideal bedroom offers users the opportunity to explore Herman’s home and to learn more about the effects of extended solitary confinement.

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.

A timer reminds users how long they have before the call ends.
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.

Navigating Violence and Alma’s Story in an Interactive Documemtary

The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence
The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence

In order to make interactive documentary reviews more focused and systematic, I will use the following outline: platform(s) used, story and structure, user role, navigation directions, navigation execution, and overall comments. Released first in 2011, Alma: A Tale of Violence represents my first application of this approach.

Alma: A Tale of Violence is an interactive documentary available online, on the iPad, and on Android. One of the earlier of the next generation of interactive documentaries, it tells the story of Alma, who joined a Guatemalan gang as a teen and managed to leave with her life as an adult. This review focuses on the web and iPad versions.

The primary story in Alma: A Tale of Violence belongs to Alma herself. In an almost 40-minute video interview, Alma recounts her childhood, gang initiation, gang life, and life thereafter. The interview frames Alma in medium and close-up shots, ensuring our identification with her, though it also offers cutaways to her tattoos and fidgeting hands. Interestingly enough, that framing hides the fact that Alma is now confined to wheelchair.

Alma’s story is harrowing. Alma explains how the gang offered acceptance, belonging, support, and purpose — things unavailable at home.

One price for that belonging, though, is a life of violence. As part of her initiation, Alma helped members kill a woman whom they had just raped. Another part of her initiation involved the choice between her own rape and being beaten. Alma chose the beating because she didn’t want to appear weak.

Another price for that belonging is a lack of freedom. The gang dictated its lower-ranked members’ activities, which often involved collecting protection fees and killing those who refused or couldn’t pay. Alma killed one person for this reason.

Though not explicitly articulated, a third price for that belonging is fear, particularly of the violence turning back on Alma herself. Alma left without permission for two years, and when she returned, she feared the gang’s retribution. This time, none came — they invited her back in. After becoming pregnant and suffering abusive relationships, Alma requested to leave the gang altogether. They beat her briefly, and she left the meeting thinking the situation fine among them. As she walked away, bullets flew. One struck her and left her paralyzed. The bounty still remains on her head.

While this interview plays, a secondary storyline appears above her. The upper “track,” for lack of a better word, offers a combination of still images, B-roll, archival images, sketches, and animations. Sometimes, the upper track offers a thematic connection to Alma’s recollections, such as the pictures of poor neighborhoods. Other times, the upper track depicts Alma’s recollections, such as the animated illustrations of her gang initiation or of a gang rape. Though nonetheless disturbing, the animations offer ways to show the violence without spectacle.

The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
In addition to the video sequence, Alma features four information modules that offer background about Guatemala, maras, violence, and prevention. Each module appears like a slideshow, with images, statistics, and quotes. Some of the images also appear in upper track of Alma’s interview, but overall this part remains separate from it.

The integration of user, navigation, and narrative ensures a cohesive interactive documentary experience. Casting the user in a role helps with this integration. Alma, though, offers no particular role for its users. The directions only tell users how to access the content, which amounts mostly to swiping on the tablet or moving up and down with a mouse and to tapping or clicking on these respective devices.

The navigation in Alma is straightforward and largely similar between the web and iPad versions. The interview with Alma herself allows the expected starting and stopping of the video, as well as scrolling up to see the upper track and scrolling down to see Alma again. Users can choose not to switch between tracks as well. But, other than the up and down, start and pause, no other interactive features appear in the video.

The modules offer even fewer interactive features. An internal table of contents allows skipping through the modules’ information, or users can progress through each one sequentially, slide by slide, with a click or a tap.

While the navigation’s simplicity allows for easy access to all parts of this interactive documentary, its simplicity undermines the interactive documentary’s cohesiveness. The narrative disconnection between the video interview and the information modules also fails to help create a sense of unity. Overall, the interactive options here remain quite limited.

One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
That said, Alma still tells a powerful story. One thing I greatly appreciated about this interactive documentary was the extended interview. Too often in contemporary documentary participants speak briefly, providing on-point information and focused emotion while revealing little about their character or personality. Alma’s screen time allows her to explain her backstory, her motivations, her fears, and her outcomes. The story proves difficult to tell (and hear, for that matter), and Alma breaks down at certain points. The camera continues rolling, but no voice or editing transition interrupts her thoughts.

Another thing I appreciated was the background information’s separation from Alma’s narrative. Balancing oral storytelling and factual details provides a difficult line to walk, with the facts often interrupting the flow of more personal details. The separation ensures a smoothness to Alma’s extended interview that might not be there otherwise.