Edgar Barens' Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is a somber and fascinating short documentary film that explores a unique hospice center at the Iowa State Penitentiary.
Chronicling the last two weeks in the life of Jack Hall, a decorated soldier who went to prison for 21 years for murdering a drug dealer, Barens' film prompts a reconsideration of how end of life care issues are being handled for prisoners. The out filmmaker spoke with Windy City Times about his film, which opens Jan. 31 at the Music Box Theatre ( www.musicboxtheatre.com ).
Gary M. Kramer: How did you come to learn about the story of Jack Hall and the Iowa State Prison Hospice?
Edgar Barens: I didn't seek Jack out from the get-go; it was a random thing. By the time Iowa State Penitentiary approved me to visit, I stationed myself in the infirmary, as I was highlighting the hospice program. I got to know the inmate volunteers, who are also orderlies. Jack was a long-term patient. Three months into my stay, I realized he was one to focus on, and got to know his story. He was perfect, because he could have been anybody.
Gary M. Kramer: What dictated your approachyou mix interviews with observational momentsto tell Jack's story?
Edgar Barens: It's a hybrid [cinema] verite. I was in a quandary. I wanted to make it observational, but I need information from people. The verite provides a buffer between the talking heads and the observational footage. People lose track that they are in a prison, but you get these little reminders, like when Jack is shackled.
Gary M. Kramer: What was your goal in making this film?
Edgar Barens: My first goal was to humanize the prisoner. What's happening in the media is the sensationalization of prisoners ( e.g., MSNBC's Lockup ). These are people who made horrible mistakesand there are monstersbut I wanted to humanize the prisoner. This program incorporated the prisoners in hospice care.
This one is unique and it has great ramifications by using the prisoners in this program. I wanted to know the inmate who was dying, why the inmates who helped were doing it, as well as about the doctors and nurses. My goal was to show these programs work, that they don't cost anything and they need to be expanded. There are 75 hospices in the 1800 correctional facilities, and only 25 use inmates. Long term sentences mean that the aging prison populations are dying in jail. The cost of keeping elderly prisoners is expensive.
Gary M. Kramer: You are a gay filmmaker. Was there a reason you chose not to tell a gay story?
Edgar Barens: I don't shy away from gay issues, and some of my film work has been [for the community]I did a series of public service announcementsbut none of my larger films are gay-themed. My next documentary started with a queer topic. I love doing films on criminal justice. It's become my cause. I feel that society needs to open their eyes and we can't lock people up and throw away the key. I guess it is my calling. These people have no voice. I was brought up to question things and be political, and not take what the government was saying as truth. I was also brought up to be compassionate. I was taught to listenand that's one of the best tools for a documentary filmmaker.
Gary M. Kramer: Did you ever feel in danger in the prison?
Edgar Barens: I wasn't sure if I should tell the guys I was gay. A week into it, I told Herky [one of the inmate orderlies]. I can't lie and dodge him and ask them to be open with me. He said [my being gay] wasn't a problem. I thought it would be, but it wasn't. There are certain things that you don't talk about in prison. Herky said that he had my back, totally. He told me he told folks "What you're doing is going to help them die with dignity." They wanted me to do their story.
Gary M. Kramer: What has been the impact of the experience of being nominated on your life and work as a filmmaker?
Edgar Barens: I don't think I prepared myself for this. I'm flabbergasted by this sudden attention the film is getting. Other folks who have been nominated or won, said that my life will or might change the way of getting funding, and people will be interested in your projects. I'm bracing myself. Nothing drastic has happened yet. It's crazy. My friends are more flipped out than I am. But this is actually happening. When I got the cover letter from the Academy, it gave me chills.
>I>©2014 Gary M. Kramer