Treasure is inside. She's been in and out of so-called correctional institutions most of her 21 years. Now, on her birthday, she's moving from a juvenile joint to a tougher state women's facility, where she hopes to reunite with the mother she's never met. Without irony she explains the transfer's importance to her juvie officer: "I'm going home." Thus begins Stranger Inside, which makes its East Coast premiere at the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival next week.
The movie, too, literally developed from the inside out. Filmmaker Cheryl Dunye,an African-American lesbian whose first feature, Watermelon Woman, received attention from the Whitney Museum's Biennial and won film-festival awards from Berlin to Los Angeles, spent a few years interviewing inmates, social workers, and lawyers for her second full-length project. The script, co-written by Dunye and Catherine Crouch, was then taken to Minnesota's Shakopee Correction Facility for Women, where an ensemble cast of actors and inmates workshopped and read it, even improvising some new scenes. Well-known West Coast photographer Catherine Opie caught the process on film, and Dunye acquired archival mug shots as well as prison-blues music from the Thirties and Forties.
Presented as dramatic fiction, Stranger Inside is a documentary in disguise, addressing the booming business of punishment. (The U.S. women's prison population jumped from about 40,000 to 75,000 between 1990 and 1998, according to government statistics.) "People don't want to see a prison documentary, but they want to see a story," explained the Los Angeles-based Dunye in a 1998 interview in The Alternative. "Intertwining the two will make it feel real -- and be more real, to boot."
From these personal histories, informed by the interviews, images, music, and text, such as women's slave narratives, emerges authentic power. And the claustrophobic microcosm of incarceration becomes the perfect scenario for Dunye to play out the race, sex, and class discussions integral to all of her work. But that doesn't mean the movie is a snoozefest. Like Alice sliding down the rabbit hole, Treasure's path (and the viewer's) grows curiouser and curiouser. By the end of this gripping tale, the strangers inside have become, in many ways, hauntingly familiar.