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Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo


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Bradley Beesley and Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo

6 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 5

Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600;

Women wait to compete in the Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CINEMA PURGATORIO
  • Photo courtesy of Cinema Purgatorio
  • Women wait to compete in the Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo.

Everyone likes a good tale of personal redemption. That's one reason why the prison rodeos of Oklahoma and Louisiana, in which inmates work all year for the chance to compete for a few moments of glory, have long been mythologized in songs and Hollywood movies. Documentary filmmaker Bradley Beesley, who grew up in the suburbs of Norman, Okla., and whose work shines a light on the little-seen subcultures of the American South, was as susceptible as anyone else to the lure of the prison rodeo.

  "It always had this over-romanticized place in my life," Beesley says. "When I became a documentary filmmaker there were 30 different subjects I wanted to do, and that was always on the list." But something significant happened in 2006. The Oklahoma State Penitentiary announced it would allow female inmates to participate in the prison rodeo for the first time since the event debuted in 1940. "I thought, well, this is a sign I have to cross that one off the list," Beesley says.

  Beesley's powerful Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, which will be screened at the Ogden Museum's Art of Southern Film series, goes beyond the rodeo's surface appeal to explore the lives of female inmates in the state with the nation's highest per capita rate of female incarceration. Women also remain behind bars longer than men in Oklahoma, even though most are in for drug-related crimes and 80 percent have children. But Beesley claims no overt political message with the film, instead seeking to "humanize" his subjects as people, not just as inmates.

  "Initially we thought we've got to find the bad guy, that surely someone within the prison system is causing all this to happen," Beesley says. "But it's really more about the culture in Oklahoma and the lack of opportunity that drives women to hang out with losers who cook and sell methamphetamine. That's not going to change overnight."

  Beesley has been spending a lot of time in New Orleans recently, working on one film about the city's music schools and another, Fam Jam, that explores the world of family bands and which Beesley hopes will become an "episodic documentary" for television. Understandably, he found himself working with Glen David Andrews, whose extended family includes local legends James Andrews and Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews.

  "Glen doesn't have a family band, per se," Beesley says. "But if you've got a camera, he'll put one together for you at the drop of a hat. He's very accommodating."

  Excerpts from Fam Jam and several other Beesley films, including a rarely seen documentary about bluesman R. L. Burnside and Christmas on Mars, one of three films Beesley has done in collaboration with Oklahoman indie rockers Flaming Lips, will precede the Ogden screening. An audience discussion with the filmmaker follows.


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