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.
After I discovered that Osmium is used to detect fingerprints found at crime scenes I saw a connection between the element Osmium and my hand fascination. Could I tell a story and create a feeling only by focussing on hands?
I started to think about the element, hands and the fingerprints for weeks and weeks. I went to bed, thinking about Osmium and it was the first thing I thought about when I woke up. I’ve put a lot of time into the research of the element. One evening the hands, identity, osmium and fingerprints just fell into each other like a puzzle and my film idea was created: I would film the hands of prisoners. Instead of detecting the fingerprints like the element Osmium does, I would try to detect the stories behind the fingerprints.
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.
During the filming of the hands of the prisoners I started to realize more and more that those hands committed a crime and sometimes I touched their hands to position them in front of the camera. After I heard what they’d done, what crime they committed, I washed my hands a lot. The expression: “Wash away your sins” became a symbolism in my film. The prisoners had to wash away the ink from their hands after they’d given their fingerprints.
We all have our unique fingerprints we all have our identity. I wanted to know how it feels to lose a bit of your identity and be locked away from the world by capturing the atmosphere in prison and looking at the hands that tell a story.
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.
Helmie was the winner of the 94 Elements Live Pitch at the Sheffield DocFest in 2012.
Helmie is a Dutch documentary maker now settled permanently in London. She studied documentary Filmmaking at the Utrecht school of Arts and went freelance after graduating in 2006. Her graduation documentary ‘Les Freres’ (The Brothers) was shown at the Dutch Film festival in 2006. It’s a documentary about three elderly brothers who are living together in a small village in France. In 2008 she made the documentary ‘The world is flat’ about biologist/scientist Theunis Piersma and his ideals. This film was broadcast on national television (NPS). In 2011 her short personal film about starting a new life in a different country ‘Shadow and Sun’ was awarded Best Documentary at the Walthamstow International Film Festival.
Since 2008 she has been working on a series of documentaries about 7 newly qualified doctors ‘I Solemnly Swear’. This documentary gives a personal look into the lives of seven individuals and how they cope with being a doctor. After following the doctors for 6 years, the last series will be finished in 2014 and will be broadcast on national television (NTR) in the Netherlands.