This month, a new documentary will premiere at the Academy of Music in Northampton. Finding the Words: The Story of Voices from Inside shares the story of a group of formerly incarcerated women who used the art form of writing to heal and find community. 

The film was produced in partnership with Voices from Inside, a local organization that’s helped women overcome adversity through writing since 1999. 

Zydalis Bauer spoke with one of the filmmakers and one of the documentary’s participants to learn more.  

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: This month, a new documentary will premiere at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

“Finding the Words: The Story of Voices from Inside” shares the story of a group of formerly incarcerated women who use the art form of writing to heal and find community.

The film was produced in partnership with Voices from Inside, a local organization that’s helped women overcome adversity through writing since 1999.

I spoke with one of the filmmakers and one of the documentary’s participants to learn more.

Jacqueline Velez, Writer & Reader: I’m formerly incarcerated — I did some time when I lived back in New York in 2004.

But when I moved here in 2016 and started working for a nonprofit organization Neighbor to Neighbor — I worked to train the women to speak to their legislators about criminal justice policy, a bill that became law back in April 2018 to kind of remove some of the barriers that women face.

But I was very envious of them writing and soon after that bill became law, I became part of the group. I started joining them every week.

Zydalis Bauer: And this is described as a participatory documentary.

So, Jackie, you could have easily decided to keep your story to yourself and private, but you wanted to participate. Why did you want to share such a personal experience with the public?

Jacqueline Velez: We’ve done many readings at different colleges, recovery centers — some workshops have been held in the jails and prisons. And what I realized, talking to folks afterward, is that it would change their perception on how they looked at currently and formerly incarcerated people.

So I thought that if, you know, I participated in the documentary, I could be sure to be part of the voices that would be changing the minds of more people at a larger scale.

Zydalis Bauer: And there was challenges that came along with this because, during this process, the pandemic hit. And so that kind of changed how you had to do things.

Danielle, tell me a little bit more about the challenges that you faced.

Danielle Amodeo, Film Producer: As Jackie said, there were many months that went into preparing for the film before we started shooting.

Lots of relationship building, conversations with the women about the intentions behind the project, etc.. Our first day that we were supposed to start shooting was March 14th, 2020.

Zydalis Bauer: Wow.

Danielle Amodeo: So, the project went on hiatus and we were able to keep in touch with people via Zoom. And once it was determined to be safe, we started doing filming outside.

But it became very difficult to stay in communication and stay in touch with a lot of the women who are featured in the film because many had barriers to accessing the Internet or didn’t necessarily have reliable phone service.

So, it’s really a testament to the relationship and the community of women that were part of this project that we were able to keep in touch with folks, meet them at their homes and record outside, and – and keep them involved in the process throughout.

Zydalis Bauer: Tell me, what kind of impact can this type of art form have on an individual or even a community? How does it feel to be able to express yourself in this form?

Jacqueline Velez: It has had an impact where it has boosted my confidence. I feel more confident, I’ve become a better writer, a better listener, and more compassionate, and I’m also empathetic.

I feel more empathetic towards people because of what I felt for my sisters at some point during these last few years.

It has changed me on multiple levels, professionally, personally, and just the way I look at life now.

Danielle Amodeo: I would add that what we’ve observed is that writing is often one of the first ways in which women who are experiencing incarceration and recovery will process some of the traumatic experiences that they’ve been through.

Often they’ve not necessarily had opportunities to participate in therapy or get support for some of those traumatic experiences.

So writing helps process those experiences, and then writing and sharing in community, provides support not only to process what they’ve been through, but to help them get through the process ahead of them, what’s coming next.

And then in terms of community impact, I would also note that VFI has really had a ripple effect on the community.

So it starts with these workshops with women who are in jails at the very moment that they begin the process, but it also brings those workshops outside of the carceral system and into communities, and then gives women a platform and stage to share their stories in ways that can inspire folks more broadly.

Zydalis Bauer: One thing that I really got out of this documentary and the project is that the language that people can use really makes a difference.

Words do matter and it can affect the perception that people have.

Finding the Words Participants: I am not just…

 A mother. A daughter. A girlfriend. A wife. A partner.

A witness. A criminal. I am not just…a statistic.

Zydalis Bauer: So tell me about that and how people should be mindful of what they say and how they say, especially when they’re talking to and about individuals who have been incarcerated or in recovery.

Jacqueline Velez: One thing that makes me cringe is when people will say ex-felon, or this felon, or inmate, or ex-inmate.

I think all of that type of language is dehumanizing.

And if prison and jail is a place for rehabilitation, then the language is where you start.

You don’t call human beings all of these derogatory terms and think that that’s going to make them flourish or be confident or feel – like they’re worth anything.

I want to add, being part of the group has made me feel like my voice matters, and it has made me feel like I’m worth it. I’m worth hearing out.

Danielle Amodeo: You are.

Jacqueline Velez: Thank you.

I have often read for students that are going to become judges, lawyers – they’re going into criminal justice fields, therapists, doctors.

So I think that we’ve changed the perception of people that are also taking care of community members. And that, I think, is one of the biggest impacts it has made.

Danielle Amodeo: I would add that on the film side, we were really intentional about the language we use to describe the experiences of the women that we feature.

We use human first, people centered, language.

Which, as Jackie pointed out, we have to remember that people are people.

And throughout the film, we really aim to center the women’s voices.

So, in the documentary, we take you inside jails, inside women’s homes, or outside them during COVID, and into their communities so that you can hear directly from them.

Finding the Words Participant: Running from the dealer thinking, this one’s a keeper, you’ve become a thief, lies, manipulation, deceit, pity parties and broken homes, secrets that chill you down to your bone.

Danielle Amodeo: It’s not my job to tell someone else’s story.

These women are telling their stories. They’re doing so really beautifully.

They’re using the language that resonates with them and I think if you don’t have those experiences, it’s your job to help amplify.

Zydalis Bauer: And so, this documentary will be watched by so many community members.

What does it seek to do – what would be the key takeaway for viewers?

Jacqueline Velez: I would say that people are — that all people are human, like that’s first and foremost, and to have some compassion when dealing with folks.

They expect people to come back into society, reenter society, and be a contributing member of that — to that society. But how can they be if you put all these obstacles and barriers in their way in order to get their lives back on track?

How are we supposed to make decent incomes in order to support our families? You know, we still have to come home and take care of kids and things like that.

So, you know, it’s bad enough that both have suffered abuses and trauma to try to get everything back on track.

Add all these other things that we can’t access, it’s really not right. And who we are as a society, it’s telling how we treat people in prison, in our society. You just do that and expect good results.

Danielle Amodeo: One other takeaway, I think, is — as to paraphrase Jackie, as Jackie says in the film, it’s not that these women are bad people, they made bad choices.

And they made bad choices because they only had bad options.

So, part of the intention behind the film is to shine a light on the structural and societal root causes that lead people to incarceration and addiction.