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updated: 6/16/2014 5:16 PM

Oscar nominee from Oswego sees 'beautiful people' in prisons

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  • Edgar Barens, who grew up in Oswego, was an Oscar nominee for his short documentary "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall."

      Edgar Barens, who grew up in Oswego, was an Oscar nominee for his short documentary "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall."

  • The documentary, "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall," by Oswego native Edgar Barens, was nominated for an Academy Award this year.

      The documentary, "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall," by Oswego native Edgar Barens, was nominated for an Academy Award this year.

  • Convicted killer, Pvt. Jack Hall, is depicted in a scene from "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Jack Hall," an Academy Award-nominated documentary by Oswego native Edgar Barens.

      Convicted killer, Pvt. Jack Hall, is depicted in a scene from "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Jack Hall," an Academy Award-nominated documentary by Oswego native Edgar Barens.
    courtesy of Edgar Barens

  • Video: Prison Terminal trailer

  • Video: Edgar Barens interview

  • Video: Ed Barens on Prison Terminal

  • Video: Barens Vimeo channel

 

Filmmaker Edgar Barens is going back to jail.

In fact, the Oswego native is going to 50 prisons this fall, showing inmates and wardens his Oscar-nominated documentary, "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall."

Barens' goal is to get prisons to start inmate-run, privately funded hospice programs, the subject of his 40-minute film that aired on HBO this spring.

"If I can get it out there ... I think it's going to be a game-changer," said Barens, who now lives in Montgomery. "This is not a program that's going to break the bank. It's a win-win situation."

Barens has witnessed prison hospices firsthand. For "Prison Terminal," he spent six months of 12-hour days observing or filming in the Iowa State Penitentiary, where he met inmate Pvt. Jack Hall.

The curmudgeonly, 82-year-old World War II prisoner of war was dying of a heart ailment and being cared for by fellow inmates in the prison's hospice program. They washed him, put lotion on him, prayed with him and held his hand as he took his last breath.

Hall was serving time for murder. After his drug-addicted son committed suicide, Hall heard his son's drug dealer brag about it, so Hall killed him. He'd been in jail for more than 20 years when Barens met him.

Barens says he's not trying to glorify a murderer but rather show that there is humanity behind prison walls. He believes no one -- not even a murderer -- deserves to die alone, shackled to a bed, with no friends or family allowed in.

Not everyone agrees.

"I get fallout. They'll say, 'I didn't see anything said about the victim's family in the movie,'" he said. "But I think we, as a society, have to be better to these prisoners. Their punishment is their loss of freedom, not their perpetual punishment behind bars. Their life behind bars is pretty crappy to begin with anyway."

He also insists that he's not trying to marginalize their crimes. He just sees a growing elderly population behind bars who could benefit from a hospice program -- not just the dying inmate, but also those who volunteer and realize they can be loving, important people.

"The vast majority of prisoners did something stupid and something horrible. They are not just their crime. There are beautiful people behind those bars," he said. "There are definitely people who need to be in prison the rest of their life. But, OK, if they aren't going to get out of prison, there is some good that can happen behind these walls."

Barens grew up in a highly political family in Oswego, where, as a kid, he marched with his parents against the Vietnam War, nuclear power plants and other causes.

He remembers his favorite aunt and uncle in Spain were jailed for protesting the government there. Ever since, prison became a fascinating subject to him.

Barens studied film at Southern Illinois University. After college, he spent 15 years in Los Angeles and New York making documentaries, including "Angola Prison Hospice: Opening the Door" and "A Sentence of their Own."

The Iowa State Penitentiary had been using "Angola Prison Hospice" as a training tool for their hospice program when Barens reached out to them. And they offered him unlimited access to the maximum security prison.

So he made a bold move.

Barens moved back to his grandma's vacant house in Aurora and liquidated his small 401(k) savings to support himself for one year. He used $5,000 to buy a camera and the rest to cover expenses while he filmed in Iowa.

"I didn't look at it as being a risk. I thought, if I could get into this prison and stay there as long as I can, what I can capture there ... it would humanize this population," he said.

On Jan. 16, 2014, when it was announced that "Prison Terminal" had been nominated for an Academy Award, Barens was inundated with calls, texts and emails.

"I was pretty much on the phone for 10 hours that day. My inbox was like ticker tape filling up from friends and people I didn't even know sending me congratulations," he said. "I got chills, and I was crying, but it was like happy tears. And suddenly, I was doing an interview with someone in Venezuela. It was crazy."

HBO aired the film in March and April, which Barens said is a documentary filmmaker's dream.

While he didn't win the Academy Award, the nomination opened doors. Barens is working on a new film project, which he can't talk about yet. But he said it will involve prison and it will be "uneasy subject matter."

In the meantime, Barens continues to work as a media specialist at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

And he continues to lobby for more prison hospices.

"I'd like our legislators to look at this film and maybe make it mandatory to have some type of hospice programs in prisons," he said. "When you start making friends with people, you realize there's such a waste of humanity behind bars."

-- Jamie Sotonoff

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting column feature, email them at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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