How do you tell the story of absence? How do you visualize the space occupied by longing? These were the challenges in creating Sheila & Joe, a film about two people separated by incarceration who met, fell in love and committed their lives to one another through letters.
We first met Sheila Rule when Ed Kashi filmed a video about ending the stigma of incarceration for the Think Outside the Cell Foundation, a nonprofit that she and Joe Robinson had founded. At the time, Joe was serving a 25 years-to-life sentence in upstate New York. Sheila, a former journalist, wasn't just addressing the injustices of mass incarceration, she was enmeshed personally to a degree that she never anticipated.
Once you meet Sheila, you can't let go of her. She has that rare ability to make you feel intimidated and nurtured in the same instant. She exudes an inner clarity that seems strong and vulnerable and irresistibly intriguing. Her very presence makes you want to know more. Her story with Joe is also the sort of lottery ticket documentarians dream of: former New York Times bureau chief falls in love with incarcerated man and marries him 11 years before his release.
Initially, Ed and I discussed filming during Joe's re-entry process to create a verité account of their transition to living together as man and wife. Whether we didn't have the gumption to intrude on their hard-earned privacy or we thought that approach was too earnest (probably both), we opted to create a poetic homage to their love instead.
Sheila and Joe's letters — hundreds of pages written over thousands of days — provide a road map to their unlikely bond. The film honors the integrity of the letters and follows chronologically as the relationship evolves. This allows viewers to experience the unfolding of Sheila & Joe's attraction, fear, insecurity and passion in real time.
We filmed Sheila and Joe reading their letters at Riverside Church, where she had started writing letters for the prison ministry program. We chose dramatic lighting as a means to formalize the letter reading, as though this were a stage performance carefully curated for an audience. We also conducted an interview with Sheila and Joe, which was used sparingly to fill in details missing from the correspondence.
The letters were then brought to life through the deft hand of Stephanie Khoury, who created fonts from Sheila and Joe's handwriting and animated passages for greater emphasis. Stephanie utilized video and stills from both our archive and outside sources to weave together a visual collage that dances across the screen throughout the film. We worked with suggestive, moody imagery to reconstruct the emotions in the story, and layered sound design to make the experience more immersive.
Visually, we didn't bring Sheila & Joe together until nearly five minutes into the film because they didn't actually meet in person until more than a year into their letter writing. We were also determined not to let Joe's crime define his character, so the details aren't revealed until the moment when they meet in the flesh, true to their actual relationship. Joe's crime is intentionally a footnote to this story, which allows the expanse of their relationship to overshadow a single, tragic moment from Joe's past.
I had heard stories in the past of men in prison who courted women on the outside as pen pals, and I confess to skepticism. How could true love be born from such disruptive circumstances? Sheila and Joe's letters help decipher how such an unlikely bond can develop under inhospitable conditions. We are able to witness that this is love, complex and real, and that despite their age difference, physical separation and divergent realities, they are irrevocably drawn to each other.
Through their letters, Sheila and Joe bare their souls so completely that the viewer is entrusted with two precarious, exposed hearts. Their disarming intimacy transports us as it has transformed them.
Julie Winokur is a documentary filmmaker and executive director of Talking Eyes Media. Follow her on Instagram @talkingeyesmedia.
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