Any film whose credits include "Baby Wranglers" along with the usual jobs like screenwriter, grip, etc. is worthy of special consideration. In fact, Leonera was in the competition for the Cannes Golden Palm, and has won awards at lesser film festivals on several continents. Nor can there be any doubt that Martina Gusman as principal character "Julia" provides a world-class performance. But what about those babies, and why do they require wrangling?
Leonera, you see, is Spanish for a Lion's Den full of little "cubs" - children born behind bars to women serving time in Argentina's prisons. But don't expect some exploitation film with sadistic guards - the kind you might see coming out of Hollywood studios. Here the guards are portrayed as very professional, not saints but definitely not sadists. Director Pablo Trapero filmed on location, with the cooperation of the Argentine penitentiary authorities, and some of the prisoners are playing their real-life roles.
The lack of outright sadism does not mean that this is an easy film. Some will be put off by the occasional nudity, though these prisoners are not about to enter any beauty contests, and even the lovely Martina Gusman is shown heavily pregnant in the showers. Oh yes, the showers. This being a film about women in prison, you will not be surprised at the suggestion of lesbian encounters, some of them loving relationships. Everything has a credible feel, and those "baby wranglers" must have had their hands full: the place is crawling with tiny kids.
Director Trapero and his star and partner Gusman gave an interview to Sophie Wittmer in "DVDrama.com" (part of French TF1 TV), where they talked about how the prisoners came to identify with "Julie," and how the couple found it so difficult to head home after a day's shooting, knowing that the prisoner extras remained locked up. The completed film got rave reviews from the prisoners, and is being used in Argentine prisons as a tool to stimulate dialogue. But Trapero didn't set out to make a prison film: "for me, it's more than that; it's a film about motherhood."
How do prisoner mothers fare in the United States? Well, there's an organization called "Prisoners With Children," and almost ten years ago Time Magazine carried a story, "Mothers In Prison," that documented the then growing phenomenon of women in prison, over 70% of whom had at least one minor dependent child. At the time, a "scathing report by Amnesty International helped draw public attention to the sometimes harsh treatment of pregnant inmates, such as shackling them during labor--a practice that has since been outlawed in the state of Illinois." That was in 2000.
In the February 2009 issue of Harper's, I came across in this item called "Hard Labor," an excerpt from a class-action lawsuit filed in December 2008 against the Chicago, Illinois Cook County Jail:
Guess they didn't read the Amnesty report. Tough as it is, you won't see anything nearly as harrowing as that in Leonera.
As Time Magazine summarized the dilemma a decade ago, some "argue that the risks of prison life are outweighed by the benefits of keeping babies close to their mothers," saying that it is "worse to separate kids from their mothers." There are no easy answers, and Leonera certainly doesn't provide them, other than a recognition that whatever their crimes, mothers are fiercely attached to their children.
Argentina has had its very dark days, and they often involved women, prisons, and children, as in the gripping 1985 film The Official Story, on the aftermath of impunity during the military dictatorship. Now the country appears to be trying to deal humanely, within its means, with the difficult question of mothers in prison. You get the feeling that the Argentine penitentiary system is aware of its responsibility to make amends for wrongs committed a generation ago.
Leonera will be released in the UK in June 2009.