Friday, January 24, 2014
Oscar nod goes to film on Iowa prison hospice
Jan. 17, 2014
A prison inmate known as 'Herky' sits with Jack Hall in the Iowa State Penitentiary hospice in 2006. Hall's final days are documented in a film that is nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary short subject category.
Edgar Barens spent six months in the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. On Thursday, he was nominated for an Academy Award.
He called his mom after the morning announcement and told her to get a dress ready. His extra ticket for the star-studded awards ceremony on March 2 goes to her.
She knows what it took for him to get there, and so do Iowa inmates. Barens’ next call was to an inmate featured in his film, “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” among five nominated in the documentary short subject category.
The film, to air on HBO at 8 p.m. March 31, captures inmates at the penitentiary who volunteer to care for dying inmates in the last days of their lives in the prison’s hospice, one of only 20 like it in the nation. It centers on the story of Jack Hall, a World War II veteran who fought in the war’s most harrowing battles and was also a prisoner of war. Decades after the war, he was convicted of murder and spent 21 years in the Fort Madison prison, right up to the point when he took his last breath, which Barens filmed in 2006.
Barens, 53, had cashed out his retirement fund to buy a camera to shoot the documentary and, in the years that followed, had struggled to finance its completion, working as a used car salesman, file clerk and phlebotomist before living in his grandmother’s home in the Chicago suburb of Aurora.
“I had to finish this film because of the people inside that prison,” Barens said Thursday from Irvine, Calif., where he was debuting the film at a festival. “I owed it to those guys, but also to society. We are so hell-bent on punishment. Granted, there are a lot of bad people in prison. But their punishment is being in prison. I don’t think additional punishment is needed.
“The point of this film is that even though these people did horrible things, we have to be better than them. We have to show them some dignity in death, even though they didn’t show their victims dignity.”
It was a kind of an odd fate that brought Barens to Iowa, whose maximum security prison with some of the most hardened criminals is notoriously tight in granting access to media.
It just so happened that nurse administrator Marilyn Sales knew of his work when Barens approached her in 2006 with his idea. She had seen his prior film he made while working for the Open Society Project, a how-to on prison hospices featuring Angola’s prison in Louisiana.
Sales, now retired and living in West Branch, had the idea of starting a hospice in Fort Madison’s prison, and showed the Angola film to five inmates in 2004.
“When the film was done, there were tears rolling down their faces,” said Sales, who soon after launched the program that used no state funds, other than her time to organize it.
When inmates were terminal, they were stuck back in their cells or in the infirmary to die. “No one should die alone,” Sales said. “No one.”
Inmates provided labor for furnishings for the two rooms in the infirmary devoted to hospice care. They were trained to care for the dying. Sales said the only thing many of them knew about dying was witnessing the people they had killed. But they soon learned to bathe their fellow inmates and tend to their needs and sit with them as they died.
She let Barens in because his film helped start the hospice, but she still wasn’t immediately sold. There’s a lot of trust issues in a prison and some days “I wanted to stuff that camera,” she said. But Sales soon learned of Barens’ own story and saw his passion.
“Edgar does care and it’s very evident in the way he filmed that documentary,” she said.
Barens had been making films since his days in college at Southern Illinois University. It was a tough life, so he took any job he could for money. After his Angola film, he knew there was a bigger story to tell.
“I cashed out my 401(k) and put all my money into a camera and for one year of not working to imbed myself in a prison,” Barens said. “I work alone without a crew. It’s too hard to build trust, so I’m a one-man band.”
He spent a month in the infirmary without a camera, getting to know the inmates and building trust. He said he was protected by one man in the prison who told other inmates this film was important and to leave him alone as he wandered the grounds for up to 15 hours a day. Many of them were going to die there one day, and without a hospice might be shackled to a hospital bed with a guard outside or left alone to die in a cell.
“After a while I felt like they totally accepted me. I could be in their face with a camera and they would look right through me,” Barens said.
He didn’t wait to cherry-pick a good subject. By sheer chance, Jack Hall, 82, was the next man to enter hospice. He served in the U.S. Army in the war from 1942-45, and when he returned couldn’t leave it behind.
“His tour reads like a Hollywood script,” Barens said. “He probably killed hundreds of Germans and was a POW. When he got out they gave him 25 bucks and pack of Lucky Strikes and told him to forget everything. He couldn’t do that. He became an alcoholic.”
Hall’s son committed suicide while on drugs, so he confronted the drug dealer who sold to his son in the mid-1980s and killed him, Hall described in the film.
Hall was a cantankerous man in prison but people liked him. He kept his military photographs near his bed. The men who cared for him in the film were all black, and they carefully bathed him and lifted him to his bed and fluffed his pillows. They prayed over him. “I’m somebody no one thought I could be,” said a hospice volunteer in the film.
With the help of a job to pay his bills and work on his film at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Jane Addams College of Social Work, Barens eventually convinced HBO in 2012 that it was a project worth editing and airing.
There are 200,000 elderly inmates in the fast-aging 1,800 U.S. prisons. The Iowa State Penitentiary is only one of 20 that has a prison volunteer hospice, which still operates today. There needs to be more, Barens said.
He didn’t sleep all night awaiting the nominee announcement, while reminding himself it was all about the prisoners.
“You hear about this stuff, finding out you are nominated for an Academy Award, and it’s really happening,” he said. “But, in the long run, it was a program for them.”