Making A Midsummer Night’s Dream…in Prison

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Bushra Azzouz dedicated her professional career to giving voice to unrepresented demographics through film. She produced a documentary about a Native American basket weaver and another film, “Women of Cyprus,” looking at women trying to build back their war-torn island—and she had logged numerous hours of film chronicling the production of a Shakespeare play by inmates at an Oregon prison when she died three years ago, leaving the film unfinished.

She left the project in the hands of her friends, Pacific University professor Enie Vaisburd and Portland-based filmmaker Ellen Thomas, who could not leave the story of the inmates untold.

After receiving a paper edit of the documentary—a rough sketch of the film—Vaisburd and her team worked with the footage for three years, and this past August, premiered a completed version of the film, a true life story following inmates at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, Oregon, and their production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Vaisburd’s official role in the project was Post-Production Director, and she worked with a team of colleagues also trusted by Azzouz. Out of hours of footage, they pulled together a comprehensive and representative story. Vaisburd, an Associate Professor of Film and Video in the Media Arts Dept, has decades filmmaking experience, but when asked if she’s ever worked on anything like this before, she says with confidence. “No, this one was very special and an honor.”

The premiere, held at Portland’s Cinema 21, sold out, and celebrated not only the release of the film, but also Azzouz’ life and legacy. “It was incredible.” Vaisburd says, remembering that night. A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Prison has received the Award of Recognition from the Impact DOCS Competition and will screen at the Eastern Oregon Film Festival. 

Not only does the film document a play’s production, but also the inmates’ lives, giving voice to a group of men who have otherwise lost their voices. Vaisburd reports that while preparing and performing the play, “the actors felt as though they were, in a way, out of prison.”

“We tried to bring humanity into the concept of what it means to be in prison. To bring to the light the idea of the possibility of transformation,” Vaisburd explains. In some ways, prison is about reform, and part of reforming is transforming. Likewise, in theater, people transform into characters, and Vaisburd explained that this portrayal of the “possibility of transformation” was part of the filmmakers’ goals.

The film also pulls from the Pacific University community, and underscores the talent here. Elijah Pine, Class of 2021, composed some of the original score, and the film includes some dream sequences with visuals provided by several students from Vaisburd’s Spring 2022 Experimental Studies and Practice Class.

Vaisburd is planning to host a screening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Prison in the upcoming months. — Sophia Lewis


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