The anger that seethes throughout John Hillcoat’s debut feature film, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, can be felt in almost every scene. Anger is explicitly articulated, acts of violence resulting from anger are depicted or described, and in scenes without overt expressions of anger it can be felt underneath the despair, cruelty and hopelessness that have resulted from a corrupt prison system. Every character who appears on screen (as opposed to the voices on the intercom and the people shown in news reports and pornography) is either a prisoner, a prison officer or, in one instance, a policeman. Nearly all of them have reasons to be angry as they are all at the mercy of an unidentified external bureaucracy who want the anger in the prison to manifest as violence to justify harsher prison conditions and the funding of new facilities to deliver the required brutality.
Hillcoat, along with his fellow co-writers (Evan English, Gene Conkie, Nick Cave and Hugo Race), gave Ghosts… of the Civil Dead an authentic edge by casting ex-prisoners in some of the roles, consulting with former prison guards and using Jack Henry Abbott’s 1981 prison memoir, In the Belly of the Beast, for inspiration. The scriptwriters not only used Abbott’s descriptions of how the unaccountable prison system dehumanises prisoners to the ultimate detriment of society, but they also adopted Abbott’s disjointed narrative style.
While there are narrative threads that are developed – and the whole film is a ticking time bomb building up to the events that the audience are forewarned will result in a full lockdown within the fictional Central Industrial Prison – Ghosts… of the Civil Dead is mostly comprised of fragmented moments. All the moments that make up the whole give the sensation of the remote maximum-security prison being a character itself, made up of combustible parts primed to explode. Short scenes, multiple voiceovers and pieces of media watched by inmates and guards are edited together in a collage of micro-narratives and impressions.
One of the key moments appears close to the end of the film when correctional officer David Yale (Mike Bishop) strides into the prison knowing that this is going to be the day the prison erupts. The prison administration has systematically removed privileges, each time using the upset caused by their previous restrictions to justify the next round of penalties. Yale is suspended and not supposed to be there, but he is ready for war. And he is furious. Determined to talk to somebody in charge, he speaks to a detached female voice from prison administration via an intercom. He asks for one of the senior administrators, while two of his colleagues stand nervously behind him. Yale is told by the detached intercom voice that the man he wants to speak to is unavailable. Yale shows his anger: “What do you mean he’s unavailable? Where the fuck is he?” The voice says, “There’s no need for that”.
The contrast between Yale and the anonymous voice is perfect. Yale is witnessing first-hand how the calculated manipulation and brutalising of the prisoners is manifesting. The pressure cooker situation is putting the lives of himself, his co-workers, other inmates and innocent members of society at risk. The voice on the intercom is removed from all of this. It is more concerned about bad language. And this tiny moment, which is almost comedic, resonates in its banality and refusal to acknowledge the reality of the situation. It encapsulates a society that distracts from real issues through sanctimonious statements, indifference and defeatism.
First shown in 1988, the year that Australia celebrated 200 years since the arrival of the First Fleet, another key scene boldly shows one of the despised and dreaded psychotically dangerous class of criminals being introduced to the prison population, where he starts screaming racial abuse at an Indigenous inmate. And today it is difficult not to think of the treatment of asylum seekers when the film not only disturbingly portrays how a person will reach their breaking point after being incarcerated in inhumane conditions, but also suggests that pushing people to the point where they snap is a deliberate strategy to keep them hated by the public.
It’s enough to make you angry and no wonder – Australia is an angry country. Some anger is a result of outrage towards injustice, while some anger manifests through bigotry and Ghosts… of the Civil Dead does not shy away from reminding the audience that the full manifestation of racism and homophobia is murder. Mostly anger occurs when people are brutalised or when they witness brutalisation and know that no good will come of it. There are moments when you want to scream at those in power to act now before it is too late. Instead our fury is all too often met with smug indifference and trivialised. We’re simply told, “There’s no need for that”.