Prison art documentary at Norton museum kicks off second annual Subculture Film Festival
Updated: Oct 17
LONG BEFORE SETTING out to be a filmmaker, Karim Dakkon spent a good part of his childhood hanging out at a neighbor's house in the Whitehall condominiums near Lake Mangonia in West Palm Beach.
The neighbor, ceramic artist Carol Strick, had two grandchildren of Dakkon's age, and the kids became happy playmates. But there was something else about the house that made a lasting impression: It always seemed to be crammed with art — jewelry, colorful paintings, black-and-white sketches, even a Dutch clippership made of matchsticks.
The eclectic collection, Dakkon would learn as he grew up, was the work of prisoners across the United States — and Strick was their curator, a passion sparked in 1994 when she answered a pen-pal ad from a prisoner who was an artist.
By the time Dakkon graduated with a film degree from the University of Central Florida in 2017, he knew Strick’s journey — a former Metropolitan Museum of Art jewelry maker who hosts prisoner art exhibits around the United States — would make a compelling documentary.
And since he already knew Strick, he figured he might as well be the one to make it.
The three-day film festival, showcasing 69 films and 11 workshops and panel discussions, shifts to Afflux Studios at G-Star School of the Arts for the final two days, Oct. 21 and Oct 22.
But day one will set the tone for a festival focused on local films and filmmakers. “Ask Her About The Art,” a 67-minute film, will be shown as part of the Norton’s popular Friday night Art After Dark program. (Tickets, $10 for adults, $5 for students, can be purchased by clicking this link.)
Artwork featured in the film will be on display. Dakkon and Strick will host a post-showing question-and-answer session.
“What I personally find interesting about this film is how art can be this tool that any human at any point in their life can tap into as a forum of healing,’’ said Noelia Solange, the festival's co-director. “It’s not about the filmmaker or Carol Strick. It's really more just about how art can heal. That’s a message that can speak to a larger audience.’’
Of the four prisoners whose voices appear in the film, three were interviewed by Dakkon after they’d been released. The other, a South Bay Correctional Facility inmate, was interviewed via phone and Zoom. Over montages of their artwork, they explain how they were able to create something from nothing as an expression of artistic freedom from behind bars.
“What Carol Strick has done and continues to do, in giving the artists in the film who also happen to be part of the prison system a voice to share their story, is very moving,’’ said Jodi Sypher, director of Adult Learning and Community Engagement at the Norton.
Ketchup, mustard, M&Ms and Kool-Aid, items found on food trays, were used to make paint. Hair and an empty ballpoint pen were used to make a paintbrush. One prisoner melted disposable razors to make jewelry, another made glue from toothpaste. One used hundreds of matchsticks to create that model of a Dutch clippership model.
‘Knowing these artists have used limited material they can access is even more impressive,’’ Sypher said. “It's a wonderful human story and it shows the power that art has to heal and also bring people together.’’
The film also delves into the politics of the prison system, although that wasn’t the filmmaker’s intention when he started the project.
“I didn't even really go about making a documentary to really make a statement about the prison system,’’ said Dakkon, who was born in Morocco, came to West Palm Beach when he was 5 and attended the G-Star School of the Arts and Palm Beach State University.
“It was more that I wanted to make a documentary about her and I knew that through making that I would learn a lot,’’ he said. “It was a very purely verite approach.’’
He said he chose not to conduct research on his subject before starting the project, as many documentarians do. Instead, he asked questions as his camera rolled.
Barely mentioned in the film are details about the crimes that put the artists behind bars, a conscious decision by Dakkon.
“I didn’t ever want to ask that question. I'd only want to know if they brought it up naturally in dialogue because if I asked the question I had a feeling they'd think they had to answer it,’’ he said. “Me asking it is almost as a form of power over them that they'd have to provide. I talked to them in a way they could give me honest answers. I wouldn't want them to tell me unless they brought it up naturally.’’
One artist who does volunteer his criminal past is Roger Pitts, a talented painter serving a life sentence for a brutal 1996 murder in suburban West Palm Beach. Interviewed by Dakkon several times, Pitts offers some of the most moving moments in the film, in particular at the end when a montage of his artwork is shown as he expresses remorse for his crime.
“It took a long time for me to own up to how far I had sunk in my life that I would do what I did to get in here,’’ Pitts says in the film. “The only thing I can do in my life right now is to try to make up and show and reflect who I've become in the face of what I have done. I paint for my victim. .. When I paint, I paint with him in mind because I can't give back what I've taken. I can’t bring him back to us…’’’
Pitts’ father, Roger Pitts Sr., also appears in the film.
Dakkon uses some archived footage from the start of Strick’s journey when she started hosting “Insider Art,’’ “Art from the Inside Out” and other exhibits around the country and sending prisoners or their families money from sales of the artwork. That early footage was shot by a filmmaker who set out to make a documentary about Strick’s early prison art exhibits but never ended up making a film; Strick was able to obtain the footage.
When Dakkon first approached Strick about making a documentary, he said she agreed on one condition: If he didn’t end up making the film, he had to give her the footage.
Of course, he said, he had no intention of not making it, which he did over several years in between other projects. (His short film Hanging Bear won best animation at the first Subculture Film Festival in 2022 and was an official selection in 2020 at both the Indie Memphis Film Festival and the Florida Film Festival.)
When he started showing up with his camera to interview Strick and her family, he was pleasantly surprised to find their Whitehall home still cluttered with the art from hundreds of prisoners, just as it looked when he was a child.
“In the movie, her house looks exactly as it did 20 years ago,’’ said Dakkon, who makes a cameo near the beginning of the film in photographs as a small child with Strick and her grandsons. The photographs are a reminder of how young Dakkon was when he first encountered Strick’s art collection.
“I always remember the prison artwork was always there when I went to her house,’’ he said. “At the time I just accepted it. It wasn't weird to me. It was like, ‘This person collects a lot of art like I had a lot of legos.’ I always knew it was prison art but at the time it didn’t know what that really meant.’’
As for the title of the film, Dakkon said: “It was kind of like a reflexive choice” about how to go about making the film: “I should just ask Carol about the art.’’
The second annual Subculture Film Festival is a three-day event. It will showcase 69 films, including two feature length films – "Ask Her About The Art" and "Pomp and Circumstance" — and 11 workshops and panel discussions.
Tickets for Friday’s opening at The Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Hwy. in West Palm Beach, can only be purchased through the Norton by clicking this link.
Tickets for Saturday and Sunday can be purchased through the Subculture Film Festival by clicking this link.
Saturday and Sunday take place at Afflux Studios on the G-Star campus at 2060 S. Congress Ave. in Palm Springs.
“We are trying to bridge the gap between West Palm Beach and Miami and Fort Lauderdale and bring the counties together and start making interesting waves around the country,’’ said Noelia Solange, the festival’s co-director.
That’s why "Ask Her about The Art," made by a West Palm Beach filmmaker about a West Palm Beach woman, is perfect to kick off the festival, she said.
“That local homegrown focus was very intentional and very much in partnership with our entire goal as a festival, which is to highlight South Florida filmmakers and South Florida stories.’’
The workshops and panel discussions are aimed at helping local filmmakers thrive, she said. Palm Beach County Film Commissioner Michelle Hillery will moderate the panel discussion “Women In Film’’ at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 21.
A very brief preview of just a few of the many must-see films at the second annual Subculture Film Festival
Pomp and Circumstance
Directed by Adrian Anderson and Patrick Gray
In Burlington, Vermont, three soon-to-be-graduates — Charlie, an unconventional romantic, Thomas, an obsessed poet, and Marie, a budding documentarian — become entangled in an absurd plot involving their professor, running for mayor. Shot entirely on 16mm film, this debut serves as a loving but sarcastic homage to ‘60s underground cinema and ‘90s indies. It almost feels like you are in a poem while watching it, according to one insider. If you are a film nerd this is the movie you want to check out.
Directed by Florida director Dylan A.Taylor
When a man looks after a relative’s rural house, he unknowingly manifests his greatest fear – a home invasion.
Directed by Diana Larrea, a Peruvian filmmaker and documentary photographer based in Miami and Cusco
The story of two Guatemalan day laborers in Homestead, FL whose fight against wage theft in their community takes them on a journey of personal transformation.
Animated film directed by Mason O'Brien from West Palm Beach
After a nuclear bomb is dropped, a boy enters the afterlife, briefly remembers his life, and is reincarnated into a flower.
My Heart to Yours
Directed by Violet Lay, student at Dreyfoos School of the Arts.
A short film on human connection. Embracing the simplicity and complexity of connection and what it means to be alive.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.