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Painted with My Hair: Film Screening plus Q&A with director Mike Dibb

The Hidden Persuaders project

Friday, 21 June 2019 from 13:00 to 15:00 (BST)

Painted with My Hair: Film Screening plus Q&A with...

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General admission 21 Jun 2019 Free  

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A new feature length documentary about the US 'penal torture' of long-term solitary confinement, and of one remarkable prisoner’s survival and redemption through art.

Painted with My Hair is inspired by the paintings, poetry and letters of Donny Johnson, an exceptionally talented US lifer, who’s been locked away inside his country’s notoriously punitive prison system since the age of 18. The film tells the story of Donny’s redemption through writing and art, despite having to make brushes from his own hair and synthesize his pigments from the only materials available to him, M&Ms and Skittles. Now 58, Donny is finally out of solitary and had his first parole board hearing in April 2018. But for 24 years of his prison life he was ‘buried alive’ in an 11’x7’ concrete cell inside the Super Max Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison, where the making of art was crucial to Donny’s psychological survival. As he wrote in 2008:

 I'm entombed in the bowels of the worst prison in the state of California. From the depths of my soul in the shades of hell I manifested art. The only place that I have any semblance of control over my environment is through creativity. I've been in prison for 30 years and it's a history whose nightmare I'm trying to awake from. When you're buried alive you dig for your life. Digging where you delve in solitary confinement, into the unconscious, I found a pool of mythic images and painted them with my own DNA, ie. a brush fashioned out of my own hair...

In this new film all quotations from Donny’s many letters and essays are read by the well-known American actor Stanley Tucci.

Mike Dibb is an award-winning UK documentary producer/director, who's been making films for television for many years on subjects ranging from cinema and music to art, sport, literature, science and popular culture. These include films about Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, as well as with writers ranging from AS Byatt and Elmore Leonard to CLR James and Raymond Williams. In 1972 he created the TV series Ways of Seeing with John Berger, now regarded not only as a landmark work of British arts broadcasting, but as a key moment in the democratisation of art.

This film screening will be held during the visit of philosopher Professor Lisa Guenther’s visit to Birkbeck in June 2019, arranged under the auspices of the Hidden Persuaders project, the Birkbeck Instiutute of Social Research and The Pathologies of Solitude project at Queen Mary. In her powerful book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, Guenther provides a history and phenomenological account of solitary confinement, describing the lived experience of solitary as a form of perceptual and social death. Lisa Guenther is National Scholar in Political Philosophy and Critical Prison Studies at Queen's University, Canada.


For more information about the lecture and associated events, contact Katy Pettit (

Do you have questions about Painted with My Hair: Film Screening plus Q&A with director Mike Dibb? Contact The Hidden Persuaders project

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When & Where

Birkbeck Cinema
43 Gordon Square
WC1H 0PD London
United Kingdom

Friday, 21 June 2019 from 13:00 to 15:00 (BST)

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The Hidden Persuaders project

The Hidden Persuaders project is a five-year research project funded by the Wellcome Trust and based at Birkbeck, University of London. 

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