Mid-way through last year we spoke to Mike Paterson about 94 Elements, his ambitious global filmmaking project exploring our lives through the lens of the elements. At that point in time, films for Oxygen, Copper, Gadolinium and Germanium had already been made, and Dutch documentarian Helmie Stil had just been commissioned to create a film based on Osmium after winning the Sheffield DocFest pitch with Fingerprints.
After discovering that Osmium was used to detect crime scene fingerprints, it seemed the obvious element for Stil to make a film around given her lifelong fascination with hands:
“I’ve always had a fascination with hands. I think you can tell a lot just by looking at hands. Some hands are strong, tough and some are gentle and fair. Since I moved from Holland to London 2 years ago. I started to play a game in the tube. When I’m sitting in the tube I look at the hands of the passengers around me and I start to make up my own story that connects to the hands. When the person leaves the tube I look up and try to see if my imagination/story was a bit true.”
Running the element, its uses and her tube game together over a few weeks, she hit upon the idea of a film which would focus on the hands of prisoners and, as osmium detects fingerprints, would attempt to detect the stories of the individuals behind the fingerprints. Gaining access to a prison willing to allow the filming however, proved to be a much more arduous task:
“It was really difficult to find a prison that wanted to cooperate making the film. After a lot of phone calls, emails, interviews and screenings, the prison in Houten was willing to help. Together with Nils Post, the cinematographer, we went to prison for 3 days. We first asked the prisoners if they wanted to be in the film. I made a letter/quitclaim on which they could decide what they were willing to do: 1. Filming of hands. 2. Interview. 3. Filming everything. Most prisoners didn’t want to be filmed, but at the end of our 3 days in prison we recorded ten interviews. I held the interviews in a detective office and tried to make a comfortable atmosphere even when the police officer was standing in the corner, arms crossed in front of his belly, for protection. Most prisoners were really happy to be out of the cell and were willing to talk. I could feel their loneliness, their incapacity and tried to capture that in the interviews.”
The phrase ‘Wash away your sins’ infused the project, with the fingerprinting of prisoners requiring them to wash the ink away, while Stil had to position those hands regularly for the camera, which left her feeling compelled to wash her hands after hearing the crimes those hands had committed. It was a powerful experience that followed Stil beyond the walls of the prison:
“Every day, after the filming, when Nils and I walked out of the prison into the fresh air I felt so much relief I appreciated my freedom more. I’m grateful that I could take a peak into the prison world and experience how it feels to be locked up, but after making this film I’m even more grateful to be living in a free world.”