Inside Stories

Still from 'Boys on the Inside'

Documentary highlights ‘boy’ identity in women’s prisons

“I was in another prison within prison.”

Sebastian Raine is one of the subjects of Elliat Graney-Saucke’s forthcoming documentary Boys on the Inside, about the struggles of incarceration (and life after prison) as a trans or butch person. Often, Raine tells me, male-presenting or trans people are segregated from the general population, kept in isolation for being themselves.

“You’re treated differently, like you’re a predator—they just think all kinds of craziness, and if nobody talks about it they’re going to continue to treat people like that,” Raine says.

Graney-Saucke heard this cruel and all-too-common story for the first time while working with choreographer Pat Graney’s Keeping the Faith—The Prison Project; Graney-Saucke has been the project’s coordinator and media documentarian on and off for 15 years. The three-month, art-based educational residency program sends artists to work with incarcerated women and girls, and the program culminates in a performance for fellow inmates and community members—one of the few extant chances they have to tell their stories.

Graney-Saucke met Raine while he was incarcerated, and a year after Raine was released from prison they were working together with Keeping the Faith. He’s now a producer on Boys on the Inside, as well as a central figure and a key collaborator. Eight years in the making, the film should be finished in 2017 and is slated for an early 2018 release, but its community engagement programs ramp up next month with a panel discussion on women’s prisons, art and queerness presented by Seattle University.

“These stories are so captivating; I feel like it’s my obligation as a storyteller to help facilitate bringing them to the world,” Graney-Saucke says. Originally conceived as a short film, the feature now centers primarily on Raine and two other subjects, with plenty of secondary characters, edited down from 50-plus hours of footage. Some folks are doing really well post-incarceration, and some are caught in the cycle of returning to prison or struggling to stay sober.

“Even if you’re in this difficult place it’s still your life,” Graney-Saucke says, “it’s not like you can put your life and all your emotions and experiences on hold for years.”

The film’s long gestation period has allowed it to become a living document, developing with the changing American political climate as well as with Graney-Saucke’s own shifting self-reflection and the evolving ethics of documentary filmmaking as an art form.

As an artist, Graney-Saucke is grappling with transparency, about how much time to spend disclosing her relationship to her subject. “A documentary is never neutral, and I think it’s a disservice to the story to pretend,” she says. “Taking more time has allowed me to challenge myself to be as honest as I can in telling this story.”

Another benefit of the longer time frame? When Graney-Saucke first interviewed many of her subjects, they hadn’t been out of prison for very long, and were still pretty institutionalized. Some people, she says, took seven years to realize what it meant to be in a film and figure out how they wanted to be presented, and even longer to want to work with her, while understanding that they can’t just show the good stuff because it has to be real. Reality is the key to representation.