Ciara Lacy’s “Out of State” is the celebrated documentary about Hawaii-born felons who are moved to an Arizona-based prison and practice their cultural heritage on the inside. We watch as displaced prisoners learn profound lessons and traditions of Hawaiian culture as a means to gain mental strength and pass the time of their sentences. These establishing scenes expose the viewer to an extraordinary method of teaching within an isolated prison and demonstrate how, from top to bottom, the filmmaker access here is uncanny.
Lacy’s powerhouse work centers on two prisoners, identified as David and Hale, who struggle to reacclimatize themselves to society outside the prison walls. David is an intimidating presence, with a tribal face tattoo and the heart of a warrior. Hale evokes a slightly less intense presence and, while onon work furlough, attempts to rebuild a former relationship. Hale notes at one point early on, “All this time, I’ve wanted to come home, but right now, prison is home.”
If Hale’s journey is uneasy and delicate, then David’s seems impossible in comparison, as his struggles seem to build in real time before a watching camera. David avoids temptations to go back to his wild ways but faces obstacles (like mounting bills) that constantly plague him. Among his first stops out of prison is a visit to his father’s house in hopes of reconciliation; the emotional power of this sequence, with the two men finding a genuine need to heal in one another, is enormous.
Later, David has an encounter with a an addict at a bus stop; as David is now a role model for reform and speaks passionately about discipline in his life, the young man who hits him up for money is drawn to him. The moment is devastating, as the young man recognizes a positive representation of his culture in David and knows he needs help but can’t provide David with a simple demonstration that he’s willing to change.
If I’m making “Out of State” sound like a bummer, it isn’t. While a number of scenes offer grave truths and heartbreaking reveals in the story of David and Hale, this an engrossing and hopeful (if sobering) look at how repeat prisoners adjust to a changing, unforgiving world on the outside.
The title notes the disconnect the prisoners experience when removed from their Hawaii homes and placed in a jarringly new environment. It also refers to a state of mind- as in, the prisoners are pushing to mentally return to the right place, in their minds and souls, to return to their families and communities, to regain the time that has been lost.
Lacy’s eye is full of empathy, as David and Hale are not exploited by her camera. We see glimpses of their rap sheets but there is no footage of their former selves. Their relationships with those on the outside (David’s tender, no-nonsense bond with his daughter and Hale’s girlfriend) provides the most insight to who they are now and how much they have to overcome from their past. There are a few times when it seems Lacy might be shielding us from tougher moments, particularly when we’re told of an altercation that occurred between David and a student off camera. However, considering where their journeys ultimately take them and how unflinching Lacy’s eye is at showing us their plight, the level of honesty here is commendable. “Out of State” is tough, sometimes beautiful and always illuminating. It is an essential documentary about how prison shapes men and how the outside world will either punish or welcome them when they return.
Out of State was recently awarded Best Feature Length Film by the Hawaii Film Critics Society. The award was given at the 2019 Made in Hawaii Film Festival in Kona.