“What I Want My Words to Do to You” Voices of Women in Maximum Security Prison

The documentary, What I Want My Words to Do to You, tracks a writing group led by playwright/activist Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues. The film examines the lives of fifteen women through a series of exercises that are part self-help, part creativity enhancers. Write about a scar on your body. Write about something you have never explained. Write something starting with the phrase: “What I want my words to do to you . . .” But these women are not the typical students, teachers, and aspiring writers that populate most writing groups. They are students. They are teachers. They are aspiring writers. They are also inmates in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison for women.

These are not women who have been wrongly convicted. They are not martyrs. They have not committed crimes that most people can identify with, like marijuana possession. These are women with long-term sentences, some even life. They have committed crimes that most of us would prefer to believe that we are not even capable of. Many have been responsible for the death of another person. Rooted in a world where the daily papers prove that violence begets violence, this film does not excuse these women’s crimes. It recognizes that people can do horrible things and still be human. It recognizes that people can have the strength to take responsibility for their actions and not be defined solely by those actions. As Ensler says at the beginning of the film, “There is the mistake. It is one moment; it is ruined; it cannot be changed. Then, there is the woman.”

Ensler was first introduced to Bedford Hills ten years ago when she was researching an ill-fated script that she had been hired to write for a Goldie Hawn vehicle. It had the working tag-line: “Martha Stewart Goes to Prison.” The day after the studio passed on the final draft of the Hawn script, Ensler received a call from actress Glenn Close, who asked her to write a script about, of all things, Bedford Hills. While she was researching that script, Ensler began leading the writing group. “It was really an aside because I was so moved by the women,” Ensler says. “I spent weeks interviewing women and completely got hooked by these women. I was moved by them; transformed by them.”

The Close project never made it to the screen either. The only film that Ensler has made about Bedford Hills is one that she never thought of making, What I Want My Words to Do to You. The film, which has won a string of festival honors beginning with the 2003 Sundance Freedom of Expression Award, was the brain child of Judith Katz, who, before becoming the executive producer of this film, scouted New York theater for film studios. The first time Katz went to Bedford Hills was to attend a staged reading of the group’s writing—which was performed by actresses including Close, Mary Alice, and Rosie Perez. (They also performed the work at Lincoln Center as a benefit for the prison’s college program.)

“My walking into this experience changed my perception of everything instantly. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a thunderbolt of change,” Katz recalls. “I kept talking to people about my experience in the prison and saying I wished I had a camera until finally it dawned on me—bring a camera.”

Because of Ensler’s relationship to the Bedford Hills’ Superintendent, Elaine Lord, Katz was able to get approval from Albany to bring a camera into both the writing group and the prison performance. As in all prisons, access was limited due to security. “It was very generous of the prison to allow us to film. There are very few prisons that would allow that. The superintendent, who is one of the most progressive in the country, “worked very hard to make programs that they don’t have at other prisons,” Ensler says. “I am really grateful.”

Ultimately the people who had to agree to the camera’s presence were the fifteen women on which the whole film rests—the writers themselves. These women permitted the filming of the deeply personal and private process of exploring their lives through writing—which often involves confronting the crime they committed and examining how they can continue living while taking responsibility for their actions. “They all decided they wanted to do it.” Ensler says. “I think they’re very interested in people in the world knowing that they’ve changed. They’ve become other people. They don’t want to be summed up and erased and forgotten.”

The footage consisted of about forty classroom sessions, a single day of planned shooting, the performance in the prison (featuring Mary Alice, Glenn Close, Hazelle Goodman, Rosie Perez, and Marisa Tomei), and a rehearsal with Ensler and the actresses. The footage was turned over to playwright Gary Sunshine—whose plays have been produced at New York Theater Workshop, Cherry Lane Theater, HERE Arts Center and published in The Best American Short Plays, and editor Madeline Gavin—who has edited films including Manic, Sunday, Signs and Wonders, and the award-winning Inside Out.

Like many documentaries, although the footage was compelling, it was also flawed. The classroom scenes were shot with a single camera and lacked turn-arounds, forcing the editors to fake most of the reaction shots. And worse, there was no narrative. Nobody was physically going anywhere. But, as often happens in art, the limitations forced the film to grow in ways it never could have with the perfect shots and the perfect storyline. “If you could have anything [you wanted on a project], you couldn’t do anything,” Gavin observes. “I always end up being thankful for what I don’t have.”

“We had to seduce a structure out the footage,” Gavin explains. The two mapped out an emotional trajectory for the film based on the writing exercises. A structure was created for the film consisting of four parts. The first explores the women as victims. The second shows them as victimizers. The third examines their struggle to be (and be seen as) whole people who are not defined by their crime, but who take responsibility for it. The last, the performance at Bedford Hills, mirrors the writers in the audience as the work is read. Folded in with all the elements of the previous three sections is hope—not only hope for the inmates, but hope for the view that they will see the world differently. Punctuating and breaking up the scenes of the writing group is footage of the actresses and Ensler rehearsing the performance piece. “Our mandate was to make it something that we hadn’t seen before rather than a cliché,” Sunshine says.

The actresses posed their own special problem. All of them are headliners in their own right, names and faces that will attract an audience and that could easily turn the film into a bad, made-for-cable-movie. To create the right balance, Gavin and Sunshine produced multiple cuts, including one where the actresses did not appear until the performance at the end of the film. “It was so painful, it was almost unwatchable,” Katz recalls.

In another cut, the actresses were more prominent. “The balance was tipping. We were too involved with how the actors felt about the women,” Gavin explains. “It started to feel like we were leaning on the celebrities. It was absurd.”

The famous faces have been whittled down to the bare minimum in the final cut, which will air on December 16 as part of POV on PBS. As the actresses are reading on stage, the camera lingers on the writers’ reactions, while the cuts of Rosie Perez are crisp. “We took our signals from the actresses, from their generosity,” Sunshine explains. “Keeping them to a minimum is what these actresses wanted.”

Several of the actresses are still involved with Bedford Hills, volunteering time when they can. Katz now runs a theater program in prison. And Ensler is committed to continuing with her group until all of the writers are released. “They are part of my interior landscape now. They’re my friends. But also I’m interesting in their growth and their evolution and what they’re thinking,” Ensler says.

“For so many years I’ve been on the other side of the equation, where I’ve spent so much of my life with survivors of violence and abuse,” Ensler says. “It was really a profound experience going to Bedford to be with people who are perpetrators of it, and to see how close those two things really live. To see how easily you go from being perpetrated to being a perpetrator. How quick that line is. How fast it is. [We have to] examine the roots of it, by looking at what makes people become terrorists. What makes people shoot someone? . . . Why, rather than looking at the core roots of violence, do we instead just go and bomb people and shoot people and hurt people more?”

What Ensler, Gavin, Katz, and Sunshine want this film to do to you is not only make you see women in prison as people, but to encourage you to look at the roots of violence in your daily life, in your government, in the world we are all creating.