Nicole Dreiske is dragging plastic chairs across a linoleum floor and setting tables in a soft “V” configuration.
“Trust me,” Dreiske says — possibly tongue-in-cheek — “we’re going to arrange these by feng shui like we always do.”
Dreiske’s thoughtful arrangement is taking shape in a windowless and vacant tier of Division 5 at the Cook County Jail. A guard in a control booth looks through a pane of glass to a large, echoey day room surrounded by empty cells.
Female detainees as film jurors
Pretty soon, 15 or so women will file into this room and settle in to watch film shorts from around the world. They’ll critique, analyze and rate the films, and their monthslong efforts will end in a film festival curated entirely by the women.
It’s part of a program called Women’s View, and Dreiske is the force behind it. She’s executive director of Chicago’s International Children’s Media Center, and she leads these weekly discussions about the 50 short films.
All the films in Women’s View have been produced by, for and about women. A few examples:
There’s About a Mother from Russia. It’s an animated short about the sacrifices and joys of motherhood.
Clumsy Little Acts of Tenderness is out of Finland and hilariously tells the story of how a divorced father handles the purchase of tampons the first time his daughter has her period.
Aquarium, from Norway, explores what happens when a deaf woman takes in a man she finds passed out next to her dumpster.
Waiting for their day in court
All of the female detainees here are pretrial.
They’ve been charged with crimes ranging from possession of a stolen vehicle to arson, armed robbery and murder.
More than half of these women have been in jail for over a year and a half. One’s been here for four years and four months. At least one woman got sent to jail when she couldn’t pay the $1,000 required for her $10,000 bond.
About 7 percent of the women incarcerated at Cook County Jail voluntarily stay on what’s called a “programming tier” where classes are available to them — things like yoga, theater and art.
There’s even a sewing class and a book club. And this program, Women’s View.
Not everyone can get into these specialty classes. There’s a vetting process, and the jail weighs disciplinary history — including any violence while in custody — as part of that.
One Women’s View participant observed that on the programming tier, where she stays, “the ones that want to change partake in a lot of groups.”
In each weekly session, before the lights go down and the movies get going, there’s first a reading aloud of what’s called the Group Agreement — a social pact of sorts. It’s a document that Dreiske created to ensure a safe atmosphere in which people feel open to reveal themselves in a personal way. The Women’s View jurors helped draft some of the rules that appear in the Group Agreement. Rules include One Diva, One Mic; What’s said in the group, stays in the group; and ELMO: Enough — Let’s Move On!
Dreiske says her organization has set out deliberately to work in nontraditional settings, and with “people who don’t usually get a chance to see international films.”
She’s convinced that empowering these women as curators will “do a lot more than just create a film festival. It will do something meaningful for them as women, and as people who deserve to have their voices heard. “
Maybe that happens through conversations in class. Maybe it comes with knowing the comments on their ballots are passed on to the directors of the films they view. Or maybe it’s because their opinions determine the makeup of the festival itself.
Of the 26 women who started with the Women’s View program, 20 received a Certificate of Achievement.
The most important part might be the phone number on the bottom.
Dreiske says she’s happy to serve as a job reference for anyone who made it through this program once they get out of jail.
A film festival curated by Women’s View jurors for other detainees was recently presented at Cook County Jail. On Saturday, the same festival will be presented on the “outside” to the jurors’ friends and families. It will also be open to the public.
Linda Paul is a Chicago freelance journalist. This story was produced by Ken Davis.
The 2019 Women's View Film Festival, curated by inmates at Cook County Jail, begins this Saturday, April 20 at 6 p.m., at the International Children's Media Center, 625 N. Kingsbury Street in Chicago.