On Saturday, September 28thLynn Novick’s documentary College Behind Bars premiered at the 57thNew York Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with Novick, producer Sarah Botstein and four subjects of the feature.
The four-hour documentary follows the lives of a group of prison inmates pursuing higher education through the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). BPI is a highly competitive program that allows incarcerated men and women to pursue Associate and Bachelor’s degrees. Students at Bard have rigorous course loads and spend most of their time outside of the classroom writing papers, studying and preparing for their next class.
While this documentary focuses on what life is like for inmates in the BPI program, it also highlights the backstories of its subjects, their relationships with their families, and their hopes for life post Bard and prison. Through focusing on the male inmates at the Taconic Correctional Facility and the female inmates at the Eastern Correctional Facility, College Behind Bars offers insight into the effects of higher education opportunities on prison inmates.
After the screening of the film, Lesli Klainberg, the NYFF’s executive director, led a short Q&A with the film’s director Lynn Novick, producer Sarah Botstein, and characters: Giovanni Hernandez, Sebastian Yoon, Tamika Graham and Dyjuan Tatro.
Klainsberg started off by asking the former inmates why they decided to allow Novick and Botstein to film their lives inside the prison walls. Most asserted that it required a great deal of thought and debating but that they ultimately appreciated how respectful the pair were of their schoolwork and personhood. “For me, it was their questions,” said Sebastian Yoon. “Rather than asking me questions about prison life and gang life and what goes on behind the walls. They were asking questions that were related to my courses and education and slowly with time I began to trust them more and more. You’ll see me express some things I never talk about on film and I was only able to do this because they earned my trust.”
Klainsberg also asked Novick and Botstein about the process of shooting College Behind Bars over four years and how they gained access to these well-guarded facilities. “We spent quite a lot of time visiting with everyone without a camera before we ever came with a camera. Then we came intermittently with and without our camera crews because it is very involved to bring all the equipment in and out and have every piece of equipment checked” said Novick. “We shot a few times every semester over those four years in the classroom and then spent twice as much time not with a camera inside every semester.”
One of the most poignant moments of the Q&A came from Klainsberg’s desire to know about what to expect from College Behind Bars after the screening. In reflecting on his hopes for the film Dyjuan Tarto said “We’re very lucky to have this film coming out at this time. For me this is a narrative changing film, we’re at this huge moment in criminal justice reform here in the country. But very little people are having the conversation about what are we going to do about the people who are still going to be in prison after these reforms. And so this film shows us not what prison is in this country but what prison can be.”
College Behind Bars will air on PBS on November 25thand 26that 9/8c.