Land of the Free marks the feature directorial debut of Camilla Magid and had its international premiere in the documentary competition at the 52nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Her film takes us right into the depressed neighbourhood of South Central, Los Angeles, California. It particularly focuses on the lives of three different men: Brian, 42, is just out of jail after over twenty years and must connect with a world very different from the one he had left; Juan, in his late teens, is stuck between precocious domesticity and the call of debauchery; Gianni, the kid of a mother who had her own troubles with the law, risks being corrupted and influenced by the dangers of the street life, lurking at every corner.
Magid sets out to make Land of the Free a film about an inadequate prison system in an area where people often end up living a life of violence and crime due to ignorance, neglect, and a lack of other viable options. Much like the setting of an Emile Zola novel, South Central appears to be dominated by a pre-ordained order of things and defined by an endless and repetitive pattern of existence (criminal, violent and so on) that is handed down from generations to generations.
While we have seen all this discussed in various other films – documentary and fiction – Land of the Free is at its most interesting when it is at its most bittersweet. Magid allows her film enough of a chance to breathe, and the receptive and questioning viewer will be quick to spot, for instance, that “reforming” appears to equal “conforming” to the laws of a post-capitalist society. Near the start of the film, for instance, we witness Brian take a sip of coffee: his first since leaving the slammer. The scene appears to show him almost literally tasting freedom. But the coffee is “Starbucks coffee” – freedom is branded: it is gravely symbolic. Domesticity becomes his goal. Taking on responsibility also means taking a break-back underpaid job. But while he talks about his new-found happiness, it’s hard to ignore his monotone and too-controlled way of speaking, sometimes resembling a soulless android, re-programmed to please, brainwashed. Indeed, the only time when he appears to be truly and naturally happy is when he is reunited with the keyboard that kept him busy, learning to play music, while imprisoned.
This and other observations on the movie are legitimate. Indeed, while Magid’s intentions may be noble, Land of the Free does not completely form a manipulative answer to the problems she raises. In fact, the eerie title itself contradicts the overall warm tone of the film. She does not force viewers to see things her way, but simply points the camera towards a situation that is complicated, to say the least. That situation, may not even necessarily be restricted to the aforementioned inadequate prison system or much less, specifically, to South Central: it is the complexity of a repressed human nature. – ★★★
LAND OF THE FREE || 2017, Finland / Sweden || Documentary || Directed by – Camilla Magid / Produced by – Heidi Elise Christensen, Signe Byrge Sørensen / Written by – Camilla Magid, Stine Fischer Christensen / Cinematography – Consuelo Althouse / Music by – Manoj Ramdas / Edited by – Rasmus Stensgaard Madsen / Running time: 95 mins.