Shot over three years, “Cruel and Unusual” explores the decision of prisons to place inmates based on their genitalia, not their gender identity. Dan Hunt, along with two other filmmakers, set out to tell these transgender women’s stories of being incarcerated in male cells.
On the idea for the documentary
We started off wanting to do a film that looked at class issues and the trans community. There was this void of representations of trans people in the media. The thoughtful representations tended to be the occasional documentary about the “white, middle class married guy who goes on the journey of becoming a woman.” At the other end of the spectrum are shows like “Jerry Springer,” which really don’t represent anyone in a good or thoughtful light. So we started off doing a film about that, thoroughly looking at trans people and crimes of survival, like prostitution. I had been following one woman’s story for a few months and at one point she said, “You think it’s tough out here on the streets, you should see what happens when we go to prison!”
On the biggest surprise about the prisons
I didn’t expect to be as afraid as I was. Once you go inside, you realize that you are in another world where you have no control. Humiliation, violence and rape are just common occurrences.
On the challenges of shooting
The hardest part of the project was access. It is incredibly difficult to get permission to film an interview with a prisoner. We submitted about 70 or more requests to prisons around the country and miraculously we were granted permission in five.
On the reason for the film
Primarily to give voice to a community that is very far on the margins. They don’t have access to the media to tell their story. They have very few advocates on the outside helping them. And they are in a system that by its very design is abusive. A male prison is a horrible place for a trans woman to be. Someone had to tell their story.