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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

An Interview with Edgar Barens, Oscar-Nominated Director of "Prison Terminal"

Private Jack Hall
Photo courtesy of HBO
An Interview with Edgar Barens, 
Oscar-Nominated Director of 
"Prison Terminal"

By Joshua Handler

Oscar-nominee Edgar Barens' career as a documentarian has focused largely on prison hospice systems.  As his first film, Barens made a "nuts and bolts on about how to set up a prison hospice program," which started many prison hospice systems around the country.  "I always wanted to do something much more in depth...and I wanted to really dedicate more time to the subject matter, but also to the inmates, the prisoners who are volunteering, as well as the prisoner who is going through the dying process.  So, ten years later, I find this hospice program at the Iowa State Penitentiary, they had just started about a year earlier and it was a perfect opportunity to go there and not only show how a program of this type begins, but also I could spend time in this prison, and I was flabbergasted as an independent filmmaker to be given 24/7 access to this maximum security prison, and the reason I think they did this, unbeknownst to me, they were using my earlier film as a teaching tool, so they knew my work and they knew they could trust me, so they allowed me to stay in this prison for up to a year."

Barens lived there for six months.  Technically, he lived across the street where the doctors lived, but spent 12-15 hours per day in the prison.  "The first month of my stay at the Iowa State Penitentiary, I did not use the camera.  I just showed up every day and stayed in the infirmary [for]...12-15 hrs a day, getting to know the inmates who were...prison hospice volunteers, as well as all of the patients that were in there...and the correctional officers had to get used to me and the nursing staff and the doctors also.  

"The first month was basically [to] get acquainted with everybody and build the trust with them because I knew if I was going to be there for the long haul, I needed everybody to be on my side and eventually won over pretty much everybody.  Most of the prisoners...embraced the fact that I was there making a film about their hospice program because they had seen my earlier work and they knew that I was going to something of good quality and something that was beneficial to them in the long run.  As a filmmaker I had to pitch myself."

Barens didn't judge the men whom he met in prison: "As humans we have to...pull away from the we can deal with these people on a day-to-day basis...I always have that in the back of my head, never asking the guys exactly what they did."

And while Barens was in that prison, he met Private Jack Hall.  At the time, Hall had been in the infirmary for 10 years due to his inability to defend himself.  Two months into Barens' stay, it looked like Hall would be the next hospice patient.  Then, Hall seemed to bounce back, so he wasn't a candidate for hospice.

Private Jack Hall had trained as a ranger, the precursor to the Green Berets according to Barens, and was trained to kill using hand-to-hand combat.  During his days at war, he killed hundreds of enemy soldiers.  When Hall came back, "[t]hey gave him some cigarettes and a $50 bill and told [him] to forget what he did for the past three years, and he didn't, he couldn't, and he was plagued, even until the last day of his life, he was plagued with...nightmares...of his time in WWII, and he would wake up constantly in a cold sweat, and that was not because he was feverish, he was just damaged and he was 83 years old already so he was going through that for... 50 years," explained Barens.  "I don't want to necessarily say he's a criminal because of his PTSD, but it definitely played a large part in him dealing with life in general..." Hall eventually had children, one of whom became "hooked on dope" because of a local drug dealer.  Hall's son committed suicide, and Hall heard the dealer "bragging about how he made his money.  He didn't make any more," says Hall in the film.  That caused Hall to be put in a maximum security prison for life.

Because Hall was the next hospice patient, he became Barens' main subject.  "It shows that just by happenstance, Jack kind of fell into my lap...and really it's such a random thing, and I think it goes to show...everyone's kind of a gem when you're given the time to really explore their life," said Barens.  And that's exactly what Barens did - he explored Hall's life until the second that Hall drew his last breath.

Barens took a humane approach to his subject, and through experiencing life in prison, he developed an optimistic view of the men living there.  "To be in a prison that long is just soul-sucking, and I can't imagine surviving a life sentence there," he said.  "What I realized while I was at the Iowa State Penitentiary making friends with these guys, and...let's face it, some of them were in for horrible crimes...obviously they made bad decisions and they're paying for their bad decisions by their loss of freedom, but I think we have to start realizing a society that we cant further punish these guys or these women behind bars.  

"Their punishment is their loss of freedom, and after that, they deserve to live life with some type of dignity and also leave this life with some kind of dignity, and that's really not happening across the board throughout the correctional system.  I came to learn that these inmates, these prisoners, are people, and if given the chance, they can show compassion, and they can redeem themselves, and if it's going to happen behind walls, then so be it.  If they have no chance of doing that on the outside world, okay, but there's so much potential behind those walls.  So I think we as a society need to look at those prisoners and not throw away the key, but realize that they're damaged and there's still fantastically positive things that can happen behind the walls.

"Because we see Jack die and we get to know him before he humanizing him, I think people realize that death is like The Great Equalizer and this man is somebody's father, this man is somebody's grandfather, uncle, and that despite his crimes and his flaws...he can die with dignity surrounded by friends and family, then at least we kind of stop the pain.  [W]e stop more pain from going out."

After Barens was done filming, he had 300 hours of footage and had to wait years to receive the funds to finish editing the film.  Finally, HBO picked the movie up for distribution, which allowed Barens to finish the film.  With the film clocking in at just under 40 minutes, Barens was finished, and he went on to received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary (Short Subject).  According to Barens, it "[c]osts compassion and an your mind a little bit" to fully appreciate "Prison Terminal".  What Barens suggests we do when watching his film is exactly what he was required to do in order to make this film in as non-judjmental a manner as possible.  "Prison Terminal" is a wrenching, humane, and raw look at a part of the population we frequently forget about and sheds light on a beautiful program being run in the darkest of corners.

"Prison Terminal" premiered on HBO this past Monday and is now on On Demand and HBO Go in addition to many more airings on HBO.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written, Joshua! Really good insight into the goal of the film and Edgar's process.