Braving the Greys

Cole Bankston wasn’t prepared for the complexity of an artwork that explored abuse, murder, and capital punishment. But that complexity created the artist in him.

Cole Bankston, film maker, Loser by Birth

By Ron Wagner

Throughout the summer of 2017, film student Cole Banks and a prisoner on Death Row (unnamed for privacy purposes) exchanged artwork, letters, and a single phone call. The prisoner with whom Banks corresponded was sentenced to death for a brutal crime more than 30 years before. The crime horrified the court and the public, including Banks, but materials from the trial also surfaced something else for the young artist. It was the first time, Banks contends, when anyone listened to the accused’s story—making it far too late to prevent what happened that day now 30 years in the prisoner’s past.

“If this person is being killed for the sake of justice, where was his justice when he was a kid?” Bankston asks. “Because if someone had intervened he never would have done the thing he did.”

Giving the prisoner a voice was Bankston’s motivation when he painstakingly created Loser by Birth, a stop-motion film inspired by the relationship he formed with the inmate as part of a voluntary class he took at Watkins. The class does not take a position on incarceration or capital punishment but instead educates students on the spectrum of issues confronting both. What Banks learned through his work in that class, about the brutality inflicted on the man behind the monster, rattled him to the core.

“When this man was a child his mother prostituted him, and he was raped repeatedly by older men,” Bankston says. “Stuff like that just messes a kid up … He’s pretty open about his life. I wanted to cry several times just talking about his abuse.”

Desperate to escape his “birth person”—the inmate refuses to call her his mother—the prisoner says he intentionally got arrested in hopes he’d be sent to a youth home. He was, only to be returned. In the meantime, his younger sister was prostituted in his place.

The film opens with eerie music over images of a diorama made by the prisoner from toilet papers rolls...before Bankston begins to narrate.

“He actually gave me a painting called ‘Birthday Boy,’ and it’s about when his mother and her boyfriend at the time forced him to do heroin,” Bankston says. “I have people come up to me and be like, ‘Oh, are you defending what he did?’ And I’m not defending that. What I’m saying is he never had a chance to be mentally healthy. There were never any resources he could go to.”

Loser by Birth is a provocative work that forces viewers to confront the humanity of someone guilty of something inhuman. The film opens with eerie music playing over images of a diorama, made by the prisoner from toilet papers rolls, of his prison cell before Bankston begins to narrate. Then, after a moment of silence and a black screen, the viewer is jarred by the telephonic voice of the man who committed the crime recounting, among other things, his upbringing, the guilt he still feels for leaving his sister behind, and his grandmother’s kindness.

The raspy, Texas twang is animated by a series of ghostly illustrations made by Bankston on sheets of toilet paper until it is interrupted by an automated voice alerting both callers: “You have one minute left.”

“Uh-oh,” the prisoner responds—then empty silence.

Loser by Birth won Watkins’s 2018 Robb Swaney Prize for Excellence in Visual Expression and first prize for nonfiction short at the Chattanooga State Film Festival, as well as best student short at Atlanta Docufest. Over the next several months it will be shown at the North Portland Unknown Film Festival, the ALBA Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, and the Franklin International Independent Film Festival.

Bankston’s labor-intensive illustrations with paint and watercolor on toilet paper—a medium meant to reflect the limitations prisoners face when creating art—lend a powerful fragility and soul-chilling complexity to both the prisoner’s world and his crimes that, whatever one’s view on capital punishment, is hard to shake.

Bankston had never interviewed anyone in his life until the inmate called him on a Sunday afternoon. Asked if he was nervous to finally speak to the man, Bankston says that’s an understatement. “He’s had such an insane life full of so many hurtful things happening to him. It’s very intimidating,” Bankston says. “Not in the way that he’s scary, but wondering ‘Can this man even relate to me?’ Because I’ve had a pretty privileged, nice life, and he’s had nothing. Can I actually talk to him like a normal person?”

Bankston’s work is inspired by experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, and he created Loser By Birth as part of a documentary photography class taught by Robin Paris. The Sunday call came two weeks before the project was due.

“I always knew that the audio quality wasn’t going to be that great because of the limitations I had, but I wasn’t too worried about that. As long as I got the interview,” Bankston says. “I kicked it into high gear. I’d get up at 8 a.m. and just start animating all day, staying locked in my room.”

“Documentary itself, that kind of work, it encourages the students to incorporate research as part of their practice,” says Paris. “And it’s also about looking to the outside world, being a witness, as well as giving voice to people. Cole is just a really good citizen. He’s interested in his world.”

Bankston credits Paris for challenging and preparing him to immerse in the project.

“In documentaries, you’re dealing with other people’s misery. And she really taught us to deal with that in a way that’s tasteful and not disrespectful or exploitative in any way,” he says. “I just learned a lot in that class. It was really interesting. She pushes her students very well.”

Bankston, a native of Ringgold, Georgia, would like to continue to make documentaries and other experimental video arts. He’s not sure whether he’ll continue to examine the issues people like those on Death Row raise, but he feels he gave his subject the one thing he could. “I wanted to give him at least that duality of life and death,” Bankston says. “He’s going to die, but I wanted his artwork and his voice to live on.”

Loser by Birth can be seen below, and other examples of Bankston’s work are available at colebankston.com.

Watkins Residences