THE LAST DAYS OF PRIVATE JACK HALL
- ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT -
Edgar Barens approached the production of Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall much in the same way he approached the production of his earlier documentary, A Sentence of Their Own. By working solo in the maximum security prison, without the encumbrance of a production crew, his presence and eventual acceptance into the daily workings of the prison hospice was relatively seamless.
In preparation for Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, Barens attended a 14-week hospice volunteer training course offered by his local community hospice. The training provided him with the knowledge base to fully understand the needs of the terminally ill patient, the duties of a hospice volunteer, and prepare him to witness and responsibly document the deaths he'd likely see in prison.
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall was shot in the classic documentary style of cinema verité; where the camera simply documents events as they unfold before the lens. The camera was not passive in its approach, but curious, fluid, moving within and around the action in a seamless choreography of image and sound.
To accomplish such proximity to the characters without altering their reality, a bond of trust between subjects and filmmaker was essential. Consequently, the first month was spent with the prisoner hospice volunteers, correctional and medical staff, clergy, as well as the folks from the community hospice who trained the prisoners much how the filmmaker himself was trained by his community hospice.
Barens spent time with his subjects, getting to know them as individuals, their likes and dislikes, their routines, their temperaments and their personal histories before and after they entered the walls of the Fort Madison maximum security prison - most serving life sentences.
Once a trusting environment was established the camera was gradually introduced into the environment and shooting steadily increased from day to day.
Since the focus of the film revolved around a dying prisoner, 24/7 access to the hospice was extremely important. For Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, Barens was granted unprecedented round-the-clock access to the entire facility of the Iowa State Penitentiary for up to a year - a dream come true for any documentary filmmaker.
Barens desire to actually live behind bars at ISP during production of the film was thwarted early on for safety and liability reasons. However the administration graciously allowed him to set up his production office and sleeping quarters across the street from the prison in the seemingly typical suburban duplex where the prison physicians lived during the work week.
In the basement of the house Barens set up a computer for editing, a landline for a reliable internet connection, and a small twin mattress in a windowless room for guaranteed darkness at any time of day. The typical day for Barens would start before sunrise and stretch passed sundown as activity within the prison infirmary was never-ending.
In the evenings, after a long day behind the walls, Barens would jump on his bicycle and ride the streets and alleyways of this small river town, eventually forging lifelong friendships with the town folk he met along the way. The bike rides provided him with a way to de-tox from the time spent behind bars, a luxury never to be afforded the men who became his friend at ISP.
Upon his arrival to the penitentiary the 12 bed infirmary was devoid of hospice patients. There were patients for post-op recovery and others with either self-inflicted wounds or injuries received out in the yard - but no terminally ill prisoner was scheduled to arrive anytime soon. Had Barens arrived 2 months earlier he would have had the opportunity to document the first death to occur in this nascent hospice program.
However, having no pressing terminally ill prisoner proved to be a benefit to Barens as it allowed him the time to get to know and to document the activities of the prisoner hospice volunteers who were also trained as the infirmary orderlies.
Most production days were between 12 and 15 hours and increased to 24 hour days when vigil was called for the dying. Additionally, because of this "down-time" Barens established trusting friendships with many of the long-term patients who were pulled from the prisons general population due to their chronic illness and/or their inability to care for themselves on a daily basis.
Prisoner Jack Hall was one of the long term patients Barens got to know. And while Jack suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had been in the infirmary for nearly 12 years, he was far from deaths door and very spry for an 82 year old, WWII vet. Six months later however, Jack would succumb to his disease and would become the next prisoner to enter the into hospice program.
With Jack's blessing, Barens was granted permission to document his slow decline, including the final moment of his passing surrounded by his family and friends.
Barens remains in contact with Jack's surviving family members as well as with most of the prisoners, medical, security and administrative staff at the Iowa State Penitentiary. Such long term projects not only provide the opportunity to document true reality, it also offers the ultimate benefit of building true friendships with people whose lives intersect with that of the documentary filmmaker.