Dr Lee Salter made his documentary about prison, Injustice, in 2017. The film was based on his interactions with people on community service and then prisoners he encountered.
Conceiving of a Prison Documentary
Injustice was initially conceived as a series of articles telling the stories he heard from convicts. The project quickly evolved as Lee was invited by the ex-prisoner and reformer, Gethin Jones, to make a film about his project. Spending time with Gethin introduced him to a whole host of questions about the prison system.
Around the same time Lee befriended an ex-prisoner from Brighton and within minuntes they had agreed to tell Tommy’s story in all its complexity. Despite claims from people who’d not watched the film, Injustice makes no comment on victims but instead tells stories from the perspective of the prisoners themselves.
No filming was done inside – all of the footage inside prison was provided by prisoners themselves.
A chance meeting with a prison governor opened up a futher perspective – prison workers suffer the system too. Moving from source to souce it became very clear that the prison system isn’t in crisis, it IS a crisis.
A whirlwind tour of the UK to packed venues helped Injustice stimulate the debate about prisons. It helped connect campaigners, ex-prisoners and academics. What mattered most, however, was the reaction of those who’d been inside. Invariably it has been considered to be one of the most authentic prison documentaries around.
The other achievement of Injustice was to stimulate authoritarians to ban screenings across the UK, forcing it somewhat underground, but, ironically, also bringing welcome attention.
The other irony of course was that the media’s response to Injustice went some way to proving the findings of Dr Salter’s decade of media research, summarised in his documentary, The Fourth Estate.
Following up Injustice
The experience of making and screening Injustice was incredible. Helping prisoners and ex prisoners find a voice took place well beyond the film itself. Most screenings provided panels of prisoners to speak directly of their own experiences, and some of these led to other things.
One of the most pleasuable meetings was with Michael O’Brien, who had been locked up for a murder he didn’t commit. His friends got in touch with me and we made a surprise film, based around a tour of Shepton Mallet Prison.
It was a real pleasure to make the film with Michael, and give him the platform to tell his story. You can watch it below.
Another great pleasure was meeting Emma Hetherington at the Bath Spa University screening. As a criminology student and a Christian, she had a great passion for prison and prisoners, and was one of the rare people who really sticks by her principles.
After several social meet-ups, Emma offered a song, for which we made the following film. It became a sort of theme tune for the Injustice project.
Straight off the back of the success of Secret City, Lee Salter and Elizabeth Mizon set about making The Fourth Estate. The film began life as two different ideas – Liz’s desire to make a film about film, Lee’s to make one about journalism and the media.
Starting The Fourth Estate
The beginning of The Fourth Estate lay in a chance encounter with Salter’s friend, Terryl Bacon, who’s granddaughter had been telling her about her experiences as a young girl at school. We asked the parents if we could film her and the result was this.
With no funding and no plan in mind, Salter took his camera wherever he went to film life and the media, and with Liz arranged ad-hoc interviews, allowing the interviewees to determine the direction of the film.
As the Leveson Inquiry into the British press’s illegal phone hacking scandal was unfolding, it provided a natural entry point for the investigation – is hacking phones really the worst that the press does?
The Leveson Inquiry merely touched the surface of the British media system and its international link. So The Fourth Estate moved to tell the history, politics, economics and ideologies that underpin the UK press.
Somewhere between a propaganda vehicle, a lie machine and a simple business, media organisations build and destroy – to use the title of Jame’s Curran’s excellent book on the subject, they have Power Without Responsibility.
Shown across the UK and beyond, The Fourth Estate just begins to show how deep media corruption and its control of public consciousness has progressed. The other achievement of the film is to stimulate considerable dislike for Salter on the part of the British media.
After finishing the film, Liz and Salter re-edited Lila’s film, adding Liz’s particular view of the issue. The film can be seen here:
The next two outcomes were based on two interviews about the then dominant topic – the election of Donald Trump and how it was perceived. Professor Olivia Guaraldo of Verona University gave her account of how anger had become a dominant emotion and how it and identity politics affects the public sphere.
Shortly after Dr Deidre O’Neill gave her account of class and identity politics in the Trump era.
Straight after Secret City, Chanan and Salter pursued separate projects to take a break from the hectic period of filming and screening. Lee went off to make The Fourth Estate, and once that was screening, they got back together to make Money Puzzles.
Both Lee and Micheal had been active in the anti-austerity movement, Salter as the activist, and Michael as the chronicler. It seemed natural to make a film about the economic crisis, its political implications and the resistance the presumed solution in the form of austerity.
Lee and Michael set up a crowd funder for this film, raising a couple of thousand pounds, and received pockets of money from their respective Universities – Sussex and Roehampton, and then began filming.
The initial idea for how to make Money Puzzles was generated in an off-the-cuff short we made while producing Secret City.
Michael asked me “what is money” and I gave a spontaneous answer as he filmed. We raised the question – when a bank note in Britain says “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of ten pounds” – well who is the bearer and who will pay them?
The austerity discourse told us again and again that there is no money, that there have to be cuts. Salter questioned this with Jilly Kay in their research on austerity, and Money Puzzles set about providing the answers.
Filmed in Greece, Spain, Belgium and the UK during the economic crisis, Money Puzzles went beyond the question of what to do with money and moved to ask what is this thing that rules us?
In 2002, Lee Salter joined Maurice Glassman and William Taylor to challenge the City of London’s Ward Elections Bill in the House of Lords. Salter worked as the legal researcher and after a dogged fight, they took a step toward fundamentally challenging the power of the City.
Suffice to say, the City managed to wrangle its way out.
Nearly ten years later Salter recounted the story to a Londoner on a hungover stumble around the City of London. The Londoner had lived there all his life but knew nothing of this story. “We should make a documentary about this”, said the Londoner, Anthony Killick.
After scrabbling around for a couple of months trying to make a documentary about London with no decent equipment and next to no film making skills, Lee told the story to the film maker Michael Chanan. It took one lunchtime discussion for Michael to come on board.
Over the next year, Salter got in touch with his old contacts and Secret City was born. Selling out across the UK and screening everywhere from Argentina to New Zealand, Secret City made quite an impression, even winning the London Independent Film Award for Best Documentary Feature.
The other achievement was to seemingly turn Salter into a life-long enemy of the City of London, but that’s another story.