As part of Ken Burns' film family, director Lynn Novick and producer Sarah Botstein are accustomed to digging up the past, re-examining our entanglement in the Vietnam War, returning to the batter's box with baseball pioneers and soaking up the ramifications of the Prohibition Era. But for their latest project, "College Behind Bars," the two were locked into the here and now.
The film, which airs Monday and Tuesday on TPT, focuses on inmates striving toward college degrees despite unique challenges like having to break from their studies for inspection checks, not having access to the internet and dealing with correctional officers, many of whom don't have more than a high school education.
"It's very different than interviewing a Hemingway scholar who is more than willing to spend 10 minutes sharing his thoughts," said Novick, referencing her 2021 six-hour film on writer Ernest Hemingway. "These are people talking about the most devastating moments of their lives, being filmed in their cells. They're very vulnerable."
They're also intensely curious. The four-hour documentary, shot almost entirely inside the walls of a New York state prison, spends time with students in the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which allows its participants the opportunity to do everything from explore the true meaning of "Moby Dick" to debate a West Point team on whether NATO should be dismantled.
Novick and Botstein didn't plan to tackle a modern-day subject when BPI invited them to be guest speakers at a penitentiary in 2012. But they were blown away by how the inmates' questions were more thoughtful and sophisticated than those they received from law students.
"As we were leaving the prison and walking down the stairs, I turned to Lynn and said, 'Someone should make a film about this,' " said Botstein, sipping hot water in a St. Paul coffee shop in May. "It's a window into a world that's really important for us to think about."
Sebastian Yoon, who was released from prison in March after serving a 12-year sentence for manslaughter, said he discovered liberation in education.
"While reading books and writing essays in my cell, often late at night when it was quiet, the prison walls faded, my loneliness faded, and I became free," he told an audience at New York's Apollo Theater earlier this month after a special screening. "Being in college also gave me hope and purpose. Before BPI, I was nervous about — and afraid for — what the future would hold for me when I came home. Today, working with colleagues who are compassionate and committed to social justice, I feel optimistic and completely at home."
"College" comes on the heels of Madeleine Sackler's excellent "It's a Hard Truth, Ain't It," the first documentary to be directed by men incarcerated in a maximum-security prison. It's available on HBO's streaming services.
Novick and Botstein largely avoid getting political in the film, but they emerged from the five-year project more convinced than ever that everyone deserves a chance at academic greatness, no matter their past sins.
"There are those who think that people in prison should only be taught vocational skills," Novick said. "There's an assumption that they're not worthy or capable of anything more than that. But we found people who are the exact opposite of that philosophy."
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431