Andrew Johnson is not a filmmaker, he insists: he conceived the documentary, “If I Give My Soul,” while was doing research for his sociology dissertation at the University of Minnesota on religion in prisons.
The film (co-directed and co-written with Ryan Patch) shows how faith brings dignity to men living on the farthest margins of their society—and it shines a light on some of the facets of Pentecostalism that have helped to make it the fastest growing religious movement in the world.
I spoke to Andrew this week, on the eve of the film’s Los Angeles premiere, about what it was like to spend time behind bars and how he became part of the lives of the men whose stories he tells in his film.
How did you end up spending two weeks in a Brazilian prison?
I was conducting research for my dissertation; honestly, I had no plans to do a film. The backstory is that I was interested in religion in prison in general. I visited Angola Prison in Louisiana and got a tour of the prison. New Orleans Baptist Seminary runs a theology program in the prison—they offer classes and train missionaries that are then sent to other prisons in the state.
I asked to speak to one of the seminary members, and the guard introduced me to an inmate named Charlie. Our conversation happened as the guard was looking on, and I realized at that moment, that this is not the way to get the story, under the eyes of the guard. So I started to think how I could get a more insider perspective, what prison would look like without that filter.
The answer was obvious: I would need to spend some time in whatever prison I was studying, eating the same food as the inmates, sleeping in the same cells. It was also a way to earn the trust of the people who I would be studying.
What attracted you to Brazil as the location for your research?
I heard about an experimental prison system based in Minas Gerais, a state next to Rio de Janeiro. In about 30 prisons they don’t have any guards. The premise is that the guard-inmate relationship is always violent, so there’s a code of conduct that is enforced by the inmates themselves. They’re hoping to export this model to Africa and other countries in South America, so they were eager to be able to say that an American sociologist had survived two weeks in one of their prisons as a way of proving that their experimental model works!
What was it like?
There were three other inmates in my cell, including a guy from Paraguay who snored louder than anyone I’ve ever heard. Two of the guys were in because of drug and assault convictions. The third guy, who was maybe 70 years old, had some sort of sexual conviction he never talked about. He just stayed in his bed and chain-smoked.
Three or four days in, I was lying awake in the middle of the night, listening to the Paraguayan guy snoring, and thought, what if I had to do ten years in prison in this bed, in this cell, behind these bars? It really hit me at that moment, some of the emotional weight of being in prison.
How did the element of Pentecostalism come into play?
The prison was in a primarily Catholic area, but the inmates were mainly Pentecostals. One reason for this was that Pentecostal volunteers—who would come in to teach job skills and do Bible study—outnumbered Catholic volunteers by about 15 to 1.
Also in the city I was in the vast majority of inmates were from the poorer parts, where there are more Pentecostals. But the main reason for the dominance of Pentecostalism was because they believe in the potential for God to radically change a person’s life. The once-I-was-lost-but-now-I’m-found narrative in Pentecostalism really resonates with inmates. That’s when I decided to focus my research on Pentecostalism, not just religion inside prison.
Once you had that preparation under your belt, how did you come to choose the prison in Rio de Janeiro for your work?
I found the prison through Rio de Paz, a human right group led by a local pastor. By that time I knew something about prison culture, and I also knew there would likely be a prison church leader.
What was the culture of the prison?
At night, there was one guard for 800 prisoners. In the Rio prison system there’s no real government presence; state control in the prisons is just a façade. The prison gangs are the most powerful presence, but the church exerts a strong influence too. There were about 400 inmates in the gang camp inside the prison, and 40 to 50 in the church camp. The rest were neutral people who kept to themselves in their own cells.
The gang leader told me, “People outside think we’re animals in here raping each other, but there’s order in here, and you’re welcome here.” Implying that I shouldn’t be scared.
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“If I Give My Soul” is screening at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles on February 6, 11 and 12.