Behind the Scenes: Girls On The Wall with Filmmaker Heather Ross

Posted on January 1, 2010

This month, Girls on the Wall airs on public television (check local listings). The film follows a group of incarcerated teenage girls who are given a shot at redemption in a most unlikely form: a musical. Learn more about filmmaker Heather Ross’s professional background, how she discovered this unique story, and some of the recent press coverage the film has been receiving.

Heather Ross spent much of her childhood on the floor of an edit studio, watching as her mother finished her MFA thesis film. Somehow undeterred, Ross studied documentary filmmaking as well –– obtaining degrees in film/video and psychology at UC Santa Cruz. The five-year journey of Girls On The Wall began during a slow commute to work. Heather happened to tune into a radio segment featuring a musical production staged inside a juvenile detention center. “The voices of the girls performing under lockup were exuberant, brazen, yet achingly vulnerable. They were unlike anything I’ve ever heard before,” says Ross. 

Shortly thereafter, Ross moved across the country to Chicago to shoot a nine-month cycle from concept to completion. The film looks at three female inmates as they write, rap, and rehearse the harrowing events leading up to their crimes. In the process, they’re challenged to find their own voices, reclaim their humanity and take a first step toward breaking free of the prison system. Special permission from the governor of Illinois allowed the production team including unprecedented access to the teenage residents and the facility that housed them. 

The resulting film recently premiered at Chicago International Film Festival where it won a Special Mention jury award. It was also singled out by Roger Ebert and Time Out Chicago as a festival pick. The film has gone on to play at the Hot Springs Documentary Festival, the CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival in New York, the Santa Fe Film Festival, and the Anchorage International Film Festival. Critics have called the film "amazing" (Time Out), "outstanding" (Chicago Public Radio), and "an unforgettable portrait detailing the empowerment to be found in self-expression ... one of the most stirring films you will see all year." (The Anchorage Press). Heather continues to keep in touch with many of the girls in Girls on the Wall, the making of which she calls a life-changing experience. Watch this special behind-the-scenes video with Ross as she attempts to gain the trust of the film subjects and documents their journeys.


Girls on the Wall airs this month on public television (check local listings)


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