An Aging Prison Population in Its Dying Days: An Interview with Edgar Barens, Oscar Nominated Director for ‘Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall’
With over two million people — young, old, women, men, poor (and some rich) — of all skin colors serving out sentences behind the bars of United States correctional institutions, it isn’t a wonder that their lives continue to be the focal point of artists, writers, and filmmakers.
Late last year, photographer Henry Hargreaves debuted his series No Seconds, in which he sought to recreate the last meals of prisoners facing execution — from firing squad to lethal injection to electric chair — at the hands of the State. Reminiscent of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, Hargreaves set table for the famous and infamous. This time around, however, his diners were perpetrators of ghastly crimes — rape, murder, necrophilia — and their plates, platters and bowls were loaded with fried chicken, pecan pie, mashed potatoes and country gravy, and, for one inmate, a symbolic and lonely unpitted olive.
Hargreaves’ work attempts to connect the person (read: prisoner) of unthinkable acts to us, the observers, through an all-human experience: the pleasure and comfort of food. And yet, as many artists who enter the world of what Angela Davis called America’s “prison industrial complex,” Hargreaves found it difficult to leave the political at the ironclad gate. He included the meal request of Ronnie Threadgill, a Texas death row inmate, who, due to a 2011 state law, lost his ability to enjoy his last meal request. Instead, he and other Texan death row inmates are now served the same meal, which is served on the same day to the same anonymous (read: numbered) prisoners with whom they have more than likely shared countless meals before. Hargreaves noted in a recent interview, “I’m sure there was more money spent in creating the legislation than will be saved.”
He’s probably right.
This attempt to humanize the anonymous prisoner — to render compassion for those who have done unspeakable harm — is poignantly executed in Edgar Barens’ new documentary, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. Barens spent six months behind the walls of Iowa State Penitentiary, one of America’s oldest maximum security prisons, gaining unprecedented access to prisoners, staff, correctional officers, and the volunteer prisoners who care for their dying inmate friends in a makeshift hospice setting. His subject is 83-year-old Jack Hall, a World War II veteran who, returning home with little support to handle the evils of war, reenacted his life in the U.S. Army and killed a person whose drug deals ultimately led to the suicide of his young son. Jack was incarcerated at the age of 62 with a life sentence, and what we glimpse behind prison walls is a stark reality yet unseen by many: the aging and dying population of elderly inmates sentenced to life for crimes they committed decades earlier. While his fellow prison inmates view Jack as an American hero who fought the “good war,” in the eyes of the State, Jack is nothing more than a number in many ways.
With brilliant editing by Geof Bartz, Barens’ 300+ hours of filming have been condensed into a capsule of pulsing time — Jack’s last months and weeks as he succumbs to a failing heart and lung infections. Jack ultimately ends up in the penitentiary’s hospice unit — one of only 75 in the country.
Barens is not new to prison life. One of his earliest films, A Sentence of Their Own, documented the challenges faced by families whose loved ones are incarcerated. His new film is not a sappy, liberal view on prison life. It is a cold reality elderly prisoners face every day — and it is a reality not just faced by the inmates but also by their family members. As the prison population continues to age, the emotional and financial toll on family and society alike escalates.
Barens’ film unlocks the shackles of anonymity much like Hargreaves and others before him have attempted. Jack is a real person, with real life experiences (Jack was awarded three United States Medals of Honor and yet was denied a military burial), and his final days behind the walls of Iowa State Penitentiary, due to an understanding and, in some ways, compassionate administration, provided him the dignity to die not alone in a cell, but in a hospice setting where he was cared for by his prison friends — murderers and rapists.
With his adherence, to greater degrees, to the technique of cinéma vérité, Barens doesn’t offer an objective opinion of what should be done in America’s prisons. But in his white space, there is an opportunity, as a society, to reflect on where we have come…and where we could, in the future, find ourselves — a better society that has compassion and understanding of the processes of life, regardless of where one calls home.
GALO had the opportunity to talk with Edgar Barens about his film technique, the sentence of a lifer, and as a director, his hopes for his film post-Oscar season.
GALO: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject. Can you describe how you felt when you first received the news?
EB: It hit me like a ton of bricks in a good way. I was very nervous the day before. I actually had a really vivid dream that I didn’t get nominated, and when I woke up from that I was really bummed out. And then I realized it was only a dream! And I still have a chance! And then it happened and I got teary-eyed — really teary-eyed. It’s just an overwhelming honor to be nominated…I’m happy because the issue in my film is going to get a lot of attention, which is a dream come true.
GALO: Your filming technique follows a long line of cinéma vérité documentarians who sought to extricate themselves from their subjects and allow real life — the spontaneous — to unfold as it occurred. Your 40-minute documentary portrays the last weeks (if not months) of Private Jack Hall’s life, first in the infirmary and then in hospice. At what point does the director, if even in the editing room, interact with his/her subject matter in a way in which to tell a certain story or create a certain message?
EB: I was in the prison for six months, and in my gut I really wanted to make a feature film. I had made a shorter film about a similar topic 10 years earlier, if not longer. It was a short film as conceived, and as a filmmaker I was only in this prison in Louisiana for a couple weeks — I blew in and blew out. I didn’t really get to know the inmates and all their stories in the first film that I did years ago. In my gut I always felt that I needed to revisit this topic. I needed to be in the prison for as long as it took to get to know the inmates dying but also get to know the inmates who were taking care of them, and also to get to know the medical staff and the corrections people.
When I started making this film, Prison Terminal, I was fortunate to have unbelievable access to this maximum-security prison. So that was a dream come true. And I would like to thank Iowa State Penitentiary for taking a chance to letting a filmmaker in — allowing me to film unobstructed for six months. They let me in and let me film, warts and all. The system, let’s be honest, isn’t perfect. I thank them for having the guts to let me in. For a filmmaker, access is everything — and a dream come true.
GALO: So you had this unprecedented access. What were you able to capture?
EB: I had up to a year of 24/7 access and I shot 300 hours. Obviously, not all of it was good. But a lot of it was really, really good, and a lot of it wasn’t just hospice related. It was actually just healthcare related, in a prison. So, as a director, I wanted this to be vérité, I didn’t want this to be talking heads. But I often do interviews, so I can use the voiceover to add more information than you would get if you didn’t interview. I thought there were a lot of issues that needed to be spelled out. You couldn’t just watch this and get it all. It’s complicated — the hospice story in a prison. So as a director I wanted to do a pure vérité, but it turned out I had to do a hybrid because I had to do interviews. I did interviews and, basically, observational vérité. I think it ends up being a sort of hybrid — the finished film is a hybrid — it has talking heads in it but I don’t necessarily dislike that.
Your question is really kind of huge, because when I was in the prison, I was worried that it wouldn’t be clear to people: what is this all about? What is this prison hospice? Who are these prisoners? How do they get picked to begin with? Day in, day out how do they get trained to do what they do? It would be great if it were all observational. I’m an observer, so I always thought there’s enough information for someone just to watch and to learn. The film grew out of that — me worried that I needed more or the images were going to speak for themselves.
GALO: Did you go into filming with intention, or did it emerge as you watched Jack’s story unfold before your lens?
EB: I think the fact that it is a 40-minute film, has to do to with a great editor in Geof Bartz, who was presented with 300 hours of footage. And he was able to find the diamond in the rough and zero in on Jack’s story. As a filmmaker, I had not only Jack’s story, but I had other hospice patients in prison who also died. I knew in my gut that Jack’s was the strongest story out of the three. Yet had it not been for my editor — had I edited my own film — it wouldn’t have been 40 minutes. I can tell you it would’ve been a mini-series. It would’ve been way too long, and nobody would’ve seen it. I was the worst person to edit this film, so when Geof Bartz came on board from HBO, it was a dream come true. He is fantastically talented. And he was able to succinctly bring out the beauty and poignancy of what happened behind these walls, but also show the nuts and bolts of a hospice program without being too blueprint-y and pedantic about how this is all set up.
(Interview continued on next page)