30 Days Till I Meet Her – A documentary filmmaker’s journey to meet her prison pen pal

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by MATTHEW EELES

Australian actress and filmmaker Jennifer Monk is no stranger to women on the wrong side of the law.

Jennifer’s previous web series, Last Breath, imagined the last moments of real Australian women who were executed or given life sentences following murder convictions.

Now, Jennifer’s new online documentary series, 30 Days Till I Meet Her, puts her face-to-face with a US inmate who she befriended while researching a role for a Melbourne stage play.

“I was playing a character in Missfits, a show directed by Harriet Devlin-Dunbar at La Mama Theatre, that was inspired by Brenda Clubine – the founder of Convicted Women Against Abuse,” Jennifer tells Cinema Australia.

“In my research I discovered an independent film, Sin by Silence, directed by Olivia Klaus, that really opened my eyes to the world of this character. To my amazement this indie film was sent to me via post, with a letter introducing the women it featured along with their contact details via the prison.”

Whilst Sin by Silence had a profound emotional impact on Jennifer, she felt inspired and empowered by the women featured within.

“These women were taking a stand; for themselves and each other. They were determined not to be forgotten about in prison,” said Jennifer.

Sin by Silence puts a major focus on one particular woman, Brenda Clubine, who was serving a sentence of fifteen years-to-life after refusing a plea bargain that would have imprisoned her for only eight years.

“When Brenda’s husband died, there were eleven restraining orders against him and a warrant for his arrest,” Jennifer tells Cinema Australia.

“One night when Brenda met him to sign divorce papers, she knew the abuse would never end. Defending herself, she hit her husband on the head with a wine bottle and fled for safety.”

According to the film, Brenda knew she was innocent. Her husband was twice her size, a retired police detective respected in the community, but a terror behind closed doors. Over the years of abuse, Brenda had endured broken bones, skull fractures, nights in hospitals. She had medical records, photos and witnesses, yet was still found guilty of murdering her abusive husband. This was just one woman’s story.

Jennifer Monk.

“After watching the film, I wrote an initial letter, trying to be supportive and caring, but it was also generally addressing all the women in the Convicted Women Against Abuse group. Not long after I wrote my letter, I received a reply from Susan, the group’s coordinator,” said Jennifer.

Susan’s candour immediately drew Jennifer in.

“Susan was so upfront about who she was and why she was there and that is what I love about her. She is direct, raw and passionate, just like me,” says Jennifer.

“When the only communication you can have with someone is written, you develop a stronger and more truthful relationship with them. That was exactly the case with my new pen pal, Susan.”

Despite Cinema Australia’s attempts to find out why Susan was sentenced to prison, Jennifer felt she wasn’t at liberty to say, but confirmed it was domestic violence related.

“The focus of 30 Days Till I Meet Her is more about the connection we shared from being pen pals, rather than what Susan did or didn’t do,” said Jennifer.

Regardless, Jennifer says that she has always believed what Susan was sharing with her. The two have an unspoken bond and trust that Monk believes came from being pen pals and only being able to communicate via snail mail.

“Through letter writing I felt it was like a diary entry sometimes, a letter is a deliberate and thoughtful means of communication, a piece of yourself floating in the ether hoping for connection. We were able to share our truths with each other and it was liberating,” says Jennifer.

Jennifer Monk.

With her new friendship sealed in ink, Jennifer threw caution to the wind and set out to travel across the world to meet her pen pal in prison. With Susan’s encouragement Jennifer booked her flights and took a plunge.

“As with any adventure, while they are fun and full of new and beautiful experiences, I had the realisation that loneliness, sadness and doubt can still creep in at any moment. While this venture was challenging and emotional, I gained wonderful insights and it truly became a journey of self-discovery,” says Jennifer.

While Monk’s adventure plays out fully within 30 Days Till I Meet Her, Jennifer told Cinema Australia her visit with Susan is everything and more, and that this event bolstered her convictions within herself to continue to go bravely wherever she chooses.

“I really want this series to remind people that you are not alone. Even when you feel utterly and completely abandoned there is always going to be someone you can call on or reach out to for support,” says Jennifer.

“If we don’t speak up and ask for help, or give relief and support to people when we see someone in need, then we are never going to feel safe, free and together.”

Monk hopes this series inspires viewers the same way she was inspired by Susan’s stories.

“I want all women to be brave and I want to remind them that they can do anything they set their minds too, that friendship can be found anywhere and anytime, that you just have to be open to it, and most importantly, forgiveness is something that is important to help you move on and be a better and stronger version of yourself,” says Jennifer.

Monk told Cinema Australia that she is still in regular contact with Susan with a 2020 visit interrupted due to Covid-19. She hopes to meet her again as soon as she can.

30 Days Till I Meet Her has taken two and half years to put together and is currently in the final stages of post-production.

“I originally planned to create it for Susan and I to watch, or for me to look back on when I am old and grey to remember how brave I was in my 30s. But when I showed some rough cuts to colleagues, they encouraged me to make it into a series for public viewing,” says Jennifer.

You can find out more about 30 Days Till I Meet Her here.

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