Director: Brian Hill

Institute History

  • 2006 Sundance Film Festival


Britain locks up more people than any other country in Western Europe. In the last 10 years, the female prison population has risen 173 percent. In Songbirds, Brian Hill transports us to Downview Prison in Surrey to bring us a documentary musical, a new genre, which takes the stories of women behind bars and allows audiences to experience them in a fresh way. Maggie, a burglar; Theresa, who stabbed her neighbor to death; Mary, who has spent the last 20 years in prison; and Sam, an arsonist, tell us of their lives and experiences through song.

After conducting extensive research within the prison, Brian Hill sent his interviews to poet and lyricist Simon Armitage and composer Simon Boswell to create songs appropriate for each character—ranging from rap to lullaby. The showstopper of the film is the big song-and-dance number by a multinational group of drug mules about the perils of carrying drugs across international borders.

Although the film deals with depressing issues of drug addiction, abuse, and serious crime, Songbirds manages to find humor and tenderness. The songs mix with classic observational documentary techniques and candid interviews, but it is through the vulnerability of singing that we are able to glean another image, another portrait of who these women are beyond their prison sentences.

— Anna Proulx

Screening Details


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