A movie can’t change anything – except when it does.

It’d be nice if every well-intentioned movie about injustice, prejudice, or any of the myriad other terrible things in this world eliminated the problem at hand, but that’s never happened. However, a truly inspiring movie can certainly spur an individual to action, and the ripples that causes can go a lot farther than anyone realizes.

On Nov. 5, PMA Films – the lovingly and adventurously programmed in-house film exhibition arm of the Portland Museum of Art – is showing director Jessica Earnshaw’s 2020 documentary, “Jacinta.” The powerfully human and clear-eyed portrait of the woman of the title, “Jacinta” follows the 26-year-old Jacinta Hunt as she, recently released from the Maine Correctional Center, attempts to stay clean and sober, to reconnect with her sunny 10-year-old daughter, and to avoid the traps and familial influences that landed Hunt in the same prison alongside her mother, Rosemary.

Director Jessica Earnshaw made a movie that humanizes one woman’s cycle of abuse and her efforts to end it. Photo by Nancy Borowick

Earnshaw’s is a deeply compassionate film that, nonetheless, shows the harsh realities of how cycles of abuse and poverty often see destructive patterns repeat themselves through a family in seemingly inescapable ways. Except that the Jacinta of “Jacinta” is shown fighting against those influences in a headstrong but stuttering march toward sobriety, employment and motherhood, determined to wrench herself out of the current that still has her in its pull. “Jacinta” isn’t an easy film, nor is it a hopeful one, not exactly. But Earnshaw’s take on this all-too-familiar story is profoundly, restoratively human.

For PMA programmer and all-around Portland film maven Jon Courtney, booking “Jacinta” is just the latest in his curatorial efforts to bring the best, most challenging, and, in the case of “Jacinta,” most relevant-to-Mainers movies to town. It’s also a natural outgrowth of the effect a similarly stirring documentary about the penal system had on Courtney when he booked Jarius McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ “The Work,” back in 2018. That film, about a group therapy program between troubled free men and incarcerated men is a riveting look at how patterns of toxic masculinity play out, again and again. It’s also the film that set Courtney on his own path of bringing attention to the plight of the incarcerated, and the way that America’s broken systems – both in and outside of the justice system – work with merciless efficiency to keep generations of people behind bars.

” ‘The Work’ was a major catalyst for that,” Courtney said. “I imagined that I’d wind up, maybe when I’m retired, becoming one of those armchair Innocence Project researchers. But seeing that movie made me realize that that’s not enough for me.” Since 2018, Courtney’s efforts on behalf of incarcerated people include organizing a film series at the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center, organizing book drives to provide in-demand reading material for Maine prisoners, and even using his 50th birthday to raise money on Facebook to help families impacted by contact with the penal system. (Courtney’s a friend, and I donated.)

So when Courtney saw that “Jacinta” director Earnshaw was going to be in Maine for a showing of her film at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center on Nov. 4, he quickly seized the opportunity to not only book “Jacinta” for the PMA the following day, but to invite the filmmaker and her film’s subject to attend. With two free showings at the PMA at 2 and 5:30 p.m. Nov. 5, viewers will have the opportunity to meet and ask questions of both Earnshaw (at both shows) and Hunt herself (at the 2 p.m. screening). For Courtney, letting these women tell their own stories of the effects of the criminal justice system is right in line with his own deepening understanding of the ever-pressing subject.

“Prison is a place of extreme injustice, and we have a really flawed system in this country,” Courtney said. “And that affects everybody. People on the outside are dehumanized themselves, able to tolerate a system that locks up and throws away the key people for the worst day in their life, for the worst thing they’ve ever done. There’s no sense of healing, or reconciliation, for either offenders or victims, no effort to treat the harm. Imprisonment in America is solely intended to treat the offense done to the state, but not at all to the victims as well.”

“Jacinta,” according to Courtney – and I agree – is a grippingly honest depiction of the tangled mess that lands so many young Mainers in jail, and serves to keep them there. “This movie is super-complex about how we even think about criminality to begin with. Race, class, affluence – they all factor in to the arbitrariness of who’s considered a ‘bad guy’ and who’s not. That means not looking at the whole picture of how people were themselves victimized growing up, the effects of untreated and undiagnosed traumas related to military service, mental illness, and sexual, emotional, and physical abuse in the household.”

Indeed, “Jacinta” is unsparing as its central figure gradually reveals the truly wrenching details of a childhood fraught with those formative traumas, all of which stretch back through her family as long as anyone can recall.

Courtney praises Earnshaw and Hunt for telling one young Mainer’s story so eloquently, and so forthrightly. Hunt herself is out of prison, six months sober, and working multiple jobs in an effort to reconnect with her daughter.

“Spending time with a complex woman on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of harm” is how Courtney described “Jacinta,” calling the experience a necessary corrective to the “us vs. them” mindset too many people hold when it comes to those who’ve been affected by incarceration. “It tells the ugly truth, but with the lens polished a little bit,” he said, adding, ” ‘Jacinta’ is a striking example of what this person’s childhood was, the resources she did not have, and the pain that caused. ‘Jacinta’ is a perfect and powerful vehicle to see, beyond someone’s worst moments, the possibilities for transformation and hope.”

“Jacinta” will screen at PMA Films at 2 and 5:30 p.m. Nov. 5, in partnership with Recovery Maine and the Points North Institute’s Recovery in Maine program. Filmmaker Earnshaw will be present at both shows for a Q&A, while Hunt, the subject of the film, will be at the 2 p.m. screening. Tickets are free, but booking a seat ahead of time through PMA Films is encouraged.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

This story was updated at 3 p.m. Tuesday to correct the director’s first name.

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