Edgar Barens

Academy Award nominee -- A film by Edgar Barens, a two-degree graduate of SIU Carbondale’s Department of Cinema and Photography, is among the nominees for an Academy Award in the documentary short subject category. (Photo provided by HBO)

January 24, 2014

‘Prison Terminal’ earns Oscar nomination for alum

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A compelling story about a unique prison hospice program will provide filmmaker and Southern Illinois University Carbondale alumnus Edgar Barens an opportunity to walk on the red carpet March 2.

Barens’ HBO Documentary Film, “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” is among five Academy Award nominees in the documentary short subject category. The film documents the final months of Jack Hall, a terminally ill, 83-year-old World War II decorated veteran serving time in prison for murder and the hospice care he received from volunteer prison inmates.  The film debuts on HBO on March 31.

“It hasn’t hit me,” said Barens, who earned a bachelor’s degree in cinema and photography and a master’s degree in film production from SIU.

“I feel totally humble but almost screaming inside pretty much all the time. In our world this is the pinnacle of one’s career,” Barens said.  He learned of the nomination while at the Irvine International Film Festival where "Prison Terminal" premiered and earned Audience Award honors.

The nomination is the third Academy Award honor for SIU cinema and photography alumni, said assistant professor emeritus Michael D. Covell, one of Barens’ earliest instructors and his mentor. Steve James and Frederick Marx earned a 1995 nomination for best film editing for “Hoop Dreams” in 1995, and Milcho Manchevski was also nominated in 1995 for best foreign language film for “Before the Rain.”

Barens’ work includes documentary and experimental films, music videos, and public service announcements. As part of his work with the Open Society Project, Barens shot a “how-to” film on prison hospices at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., which helped when he approached prison officials in Iowa.  Filming took place over six months at the maximum-security Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa, in 2006 and 2007.  

There are 75 prison hospice programs in the United States but only about 20 that use prisoner volunteers, Barens said.  He is a media specialist at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Crediting prison officials for a 24-7 open door policy, Barens ate with the inmates and lived across the street in the finished basement of a home where prison doctors stayed during the week.

Barens cashed in his retirement to buy new camera equipment and spent time working as a phlebotomist, used car salesman and file clerk to help finance the project.

Barens completed the film as a “one-man band” with a camera and shotgun microphone. But Barens didn’t pull out the camera for the first month and spent 10 to 12 hours a day getting to know the inmates.  The finished product would not be the same had he rushed the effort, said Barens, who describes himself as “naturally curious, gregarious and compassionate.”

“The luxury of time helps you bond with people.  In prison, it is even accentuated because you have guys who have been there more than 20 years. They want to make a human connection, really,” he said. “If you give people time and you listen I think you bond with people much easier.”

Barens shot more than 300 hours of film over the project.  The film showcases Jack Hall, a U.S. Army Ranger whose background included battles in North Africa, Italy, and Anzio while still in his teens. Hall, whose son became hooked on drugs and committed suicide, was sentenced to prison for the murder of an alleged drug dealer not connected with his son’s death, Barens said. 

Barens believes the film validates what is essential for filmmakers -- listening to people and truly caring about what they say.  It is important for filmmakers to not just “get what they want and make it work in the edit room.”

“In documentary filmmaking listening has to be at the top of the list of requirements,” he said. “If you don’t give the person you are talking to the courtesy of being curious and interested in what they are saying, even if 80 percent of what they are saying is not related to the film project, that is a huge thing.”

Barens, 53, lives near Aurora and came to SIU to study marine biology.  He also had an interest in films, growing up exposed to great foreign films from parents who regularly took the family to Chicago. Barens was in a general studies cinema course in Lawson Hall when he learned of the university’s film department. Ecstatic there was a filmmaking program in a university setting, Barens went to the Communications Building, met Covell, got information about the program and changed majors. He credits SIU, where students learned lighting, animation, editing, shooting titles -- the “solid craft of filmmaking,” he said.

“What SIU taught us was how to make a film from beginning to end,” Barens said.  “Other colleges would divide students into niches; for better or worse, SIU did not do that. It was a very well-rounded education and I felt capable to do anything I had to do once I got out of school.”

Barens will take his mother to the awards ceremonies; his father, an artist whom Barens describes as a “creative force” in the family, passed away two years ago. His mother has also been a source of creativity and support.

As filming progressed, Barens said he began to realize he was onto something “absolutely beautiful” and believes audiences will become emotionally involved.  The point of making films, particularly social issue documentaries, is to showcase social issues Barens said he doesn’t believe receive enough public support. When HBO came on board to assist in editing and to air the film, Barens began believing in the film’s potential impact.

“These guys opened themselves up to me and I think viewers can feel that.  It doesn’t surprise me that the film is receiving these kinds of accolades,” he said.

Walter C. Metz, professor and Department of Cinema and Photography chair, said Barens’ documentary, along with the works of other award-winning former students, “is a testament to the decades of quality filmmaking instruction that is a hallmark of the department.”

Metz also notes the diverse interests the former students bring with their films. While “very few film schools could boast of such range,” the films are each the “work of very talented, socially committed artists such as Edgar” and “challenge the way we see the world.”