Herman’s Life as a House

04/17/2013 4:00 AM |

Herman’s House
Directed by Angad Sing Bhalla

“It’s probably the best move I made in my life,” Herman Wallace, who has spent all but eight months of the last 40 years in solitary confinement at America’s largest maximum security prison, says of his ongoing collaboration with artist Jackie Sumell. In 2002 she asked him what his dream house would look like, and the resulting fantasy home spawned wooden and digital models, architectural blueprints, exhibitions at galleries and museums around the world—including Artists Space in New York—and, finally, the project to actually build the thing in New Orleans that takes up the latter section of director Bhalla’s first feature-length doc. Herman’s House is big enough to accommodate countless rich subjects, from prison reform and black radicalism to architectural theory and the nature of artistic collaboration, but its cursory explorations add up to a frustrating if sometimes incredibly engaging film.

Sumell and Wallace’s relationship carries the film, even though the latter is present only as a wise, disembodied voice. Their tense yet affectionate phone conversations ooze with the emotional intensity that great documentaries are built around, which makes it problematic when Bhalla’s focus drfits. An early section involving Wallace’s sister proves very moving, so it’s all the more conspicuous when she disappears from the film. Another aside devoted to a younger, since-released inmate whom Wallace took under his wing may be heartwarming, but it detracts from the film’s momentum. Sumell’s struggles with New Orleans’s city bureaucracy are briefly alluded to, but never explored, and the parallels between her collaboration with Wallace and the feelings of loss and pain bound up in her parents’ house are made very palpable early on and never raised again. With some trimming and more focused storytelling this strong documentary might have been as structurally sound and brutally powerful as the art project that generated it.

Opens April 19