Books Not Bars

2001, 22 minutes
Director: Mark Landsman
Co-producers: Witness, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and the Rights Now campaign of Columbia University's Human Rights Institute
Distributed by Witness

A sign for the “Books Not Bars” campaign

Interview with Books Not Bars filmmaker, Mark Landsman


What generally inspires you as a documentary filmmaker?

I am inspired by people who, either individually or collectively, refuse to accept constraints society attempts to place on their humanity; stories of people who are deeply and creatively engaged in fighting for their truth. I saw "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk" in college, and it deeply influenced my understanding of film as a medium for advocacy and social change.

Books Not Bars - Youth canvasser tries to spread the word about the prison industry to her peers on a basketball court
When and how did you decide to undertake this project?

I was a huge fan of Witness' work, using media to publicize and advocate for international human rights efforts. Having recently completed a film on Palestinian and Israeli teenagers, I wanted the chance to collaborate with the organization, particularly on the issue of disproportionate minority confinement and prison expansion in the U.S. I was a former teacher in the NYC public schools, and saw first-hand the discrepancy in resources available. Witness, in collaboration with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and a pilot, rights-based program sponsored by Columbia University Law School, wanted to create a film that would educate and inspire youth to mobilize around these issues. I approached them to become involved.

What were your goals in making Books Not Bars? What would you like a viewer to understand after seeing the film?

The film examines a number of issues raised by the prison industrial complex – including the disproportionate confinement of black and Latino youth in the criminal justice system; the treatment and "fast-tracking" of juveniles in confinement; the misappropriation of resources that should be funneled into education rather than prison expansion. Our primary goal with this video was to ask viewers to consider these issues in the context of human rights violations.

Books Not Bars - The youth involved in the “Books Not Bars” campaign call for more access to education and opportunity
What were some of the difficulties and challenges you experienced in making this film? When filming, how do you hold your emotions back when you see injustice or suffering?

The biggest challenge for me was how to convey the scope of these issues in such a short time frame with limited resources. There could be a series on the multitude of issues stemming from this, so focusing on a few was a challenge. When filming, sometimes you can't hold back your emotions, and hopefully you can channel that outrage or sadness into the project.

Did your initial theories or feelings towards the subject change during filming? If so, how or in what ways? How do you incorporate (or ignore) those changes into the filmmaking experience?

I knew very little about this subject matter before signing on, so my feelings changed significantly the more research and talking to people we did.

Books Not Bars - Calls for action against the growing prison industry
What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?

Currently I am completing a 2 year fellowship in Film Directing at the American Film Institute. I am hoping to do a follow-up to the documentary I worked on in 1999 on a group of Palestinian and Israeli teens who met at Seeds of Peace Camp. I'd like to meet them again now, as adults, and see how their experiences over the years have affected and changed them.


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