“IF YOU could give your life a title, what would it be and why?” It is a seemingly innocuous question, one a person might ask to break the ice with a new classmate or prospective love interest. In “It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It”, Madeleine Sackler’s new documentary, which follows the progress of a prison film-making class, it is one of the only questions that matters. Rushawn Tanksley, one of the 13 incarcerated men working on the documentary, has a ready answer. “It would probably be ‘What if?’”

Mr Tanksley and his co-producers are currently imprisoned at Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana. Take away the towering concrete walls separating the complex from a highway, and the prison could be mistaken for any midwestern college gymnasium. But Pendleton is also where Ms Sackler shot her first fictional feature film, “O.G.”, starring Jeffrey Wright (pictured)—and dozens of prisoners. Both premiered this April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. 

If Ms Sackler’s goal was to break the stereotypes inherent in the prison-drama genre, she succeeded. There is a constant sense of apprehension surrounding Mr Wright’s character, Louis. But each tension-filled scene—a cafeteria brawl, a restorative justice meeting, a gun found in the auto-body shop—adds further depth to Louis. It is a testament to Mr Wright’s inscrutable acting, fully on display in HBO’s “Westworld”, but also to the wealth of experience with which Ms Sackler endows her main character. Yes, there is fighting and cursing and gangs and tattoos. But there is also levity and guilt and heaps of self-reflection. “O.G.” does not shy away from the rough aspects of prison life. It puts them into context.

In both the feature film and the documentary, the focus on male relationships is inescapable. It is not friendship, one of the incarcerated actors points out via video stream after the “O.G.” premiere. True friendship implies trust, and that is hard to come by in prison. “Associates”, says the man, is a better descriptor. The most interesting relationship in “O.G.” is the burgeoning mentorship between Louis, who is about to get out after serving 24 years for murder, and Beecher, a newly incarcerated young gun played by Theothus Carter, who is serving a 65-year sentence at Pendelton. (Ms Sackler worked with the Indiana Department of Corrections and Pendleton staff to get permission to use well-behaving inmates as actors in “O.G.”) The pair don’t get off to a good start. Beecher, not realising that Louis used to run the prison, gets into it with our Original Gangster. Louis is well past his physical prime, but what he lacks in youth he makes up with experience, and wins. Beecher apologises. An “association” is born. 

“It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It” put the relationships between the 13 film students on display in a different way. Of the themes that the men kept returning to when deciding how to structure their documentary, the lack of male role models for young black men in low-income neighbourhoods features prominently. That, they said, was one of the reasons they opted to take part in the film-making workshop put on by Ms Sackler: to reach young people at risk of travelling down a similar path.

Louis, Beecher and Mr Tanksley are wrestling with the same questions that Americans find themselves debating all the time. Is the penal justice system helping or hurting society? What is the root cause of violence? Has society failed the black and the poor? How do you measure rehabilitation? Neither film could answer these queries. They did not try to. The gratifying bit was watching the 13 fledgling documentarians figure out their own opinions on responsibility and second chances while the audience mulled it over too.

Parts of “O.G.” come off as affected: dreamlike flashes of memory spliced into Louis’s narrative—waves crashing on rocks, hazy images of his son and granddaughter—all to portray a yearning for the outside. These are unnecessary. That yearning is palpable in each shot of the prison wall and every security strip-search. The surrealist dreamscapes only distort the world Ms Sackler has so painstakingly, and successfully, created. This should be a lesson. America’s criminal justice system does not need to be heavily dramatised for the silver screen. The realities of mass incarceration are bleak enough. 

The most bewildering part of the two premieres may not have stemmed from the films themselves. It was impossible to deny the incredible gulf between the incarcerated members of the cast and crew, and the audience applauding them from a posh theatre in Manhattan. After the movie-goers and the inmates from “It’s A Hard Truth Ain’t It” had finished their interaction via video link following the film, the audience turned back to their mobile phones and made their way to the subway. Mr Tanskley and his “associates”, unseen by that point, probably returned to their cells.