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Montgomery filmmaker an Oscar nominee : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Montgomery filmmaker an Oscar nominee
Edgar Barens' 'Prison Terminal' up for best documentary award

by Tony Scott


A Montgomery man has been nominated for an Oscar for his documentary on a terminally ill inmate serving a life sentence in an Iowa prison and the inmate volunteers who take care of him as part of the prison's hospice program.

Edgar Barens, a 1979 Oswego High School graduate who earned a bachelor's degree in cinema and photography and master's degree in film production at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, was nominated for his documentary "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall" in the Documentary Short Subject category.

The winners will be announced at the Oscars ceremony to be aired live March 2 on ABC. Barens' film was nominated along with four other short documentaries. "Prison Terminal" is around 40 minutes in length.

Barens' film will premiere on HBO on Monday, March 31 at 8 p.m. Central time.

The film centers around the elderly Hall, a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war who was serving a life sentence in Iowa State Penitentiary for murdering an alleged drug dealer in the 1980s.

As his health worsened, Hall was moved into one of two hospice beds at the prison - rooms that were furnished and equipped by donors and volunteers. The hospice care volunteers are inmates themselves - those convicted of murder, kidnapping and other charges.

Barens said he called his mother right after learning of his nomination.

"I told my mom I was going to take her to the Oscars one day, and I called her when I found out last week, and said, 'Get your dress, we're going to Hollywood,'" he said.

In order to be nominated, his film has to first be considered "qualified," and was screened at a qualified theater for a week.

Barens said the screening at the theater was "one hoop to jump through, to get qualified." There were hundreds of films that were qualified, he said, and then that group is narrowed down to a group of eight.

"A couple months ago I found out I was on the 'short list' with seven other films," he said. "And then they said, wait until Jan. 16 and from those eight, they'll pick five. And now five of us filmmakers are going to go to the Oscars on March 2, and hopefully they'll pick my name, but we'll see."

Barens said the Oscar nomination is "a dream come true" but that "it never was something I was always talking about."

"But my God, the minute it happened, I was a complete emotional... I cried my eyes out for no apparent reason, it was just an overload," he said.

A humble Barens said he "didn't want to make a huge deal out of it," but also said he was "flabbergasted."

"You do films that sometimes don't get the distribution you want, and they're from the heart and you don't get any acknowledgement," he said. "This is a huge approbation for work I've been doing, and I'm flabbergasted, really."

Barens said the inmates at Iowa haven't seen the film yet. He hopes to have an event in the future where the film is screened for the inmates.

Following its run on HBO, Barens is talking to companies that will distribute and broadcast the film.

"I don't even know if that's an easy process," he said. "This is kind of all new to me. But I think with the HBO feather in my hat, and the Oscar nomination, I think it will get some attention. That was my goal - you want stuff seen. If it's sitting on a shelf, there's no point in making it."

'Prison Terminal' not
his first film on hospices

Barens described his parents as being politically involved and "film buffs."

"My brother and I were brought up politically aware of things that were going on in the country," he said. "My dad is an artist and was always political with his art."

Barens recalls going with his parents to FermiLab in Batavia to watch international films.

When Barens went off to college, film schools were not easy to find, he said. He said he originally was a biology major but eventually got involved with the film school at SIU.

Barens has made other documentary films, including others on prison incarceration issues, but "Prison Terminal" was the one "that got a lot of attention," he said.

Before he shot "Prison Terminal," Barens directed a documentary in 1999 on the hospice program at Angola Prison in Louisiana, which inspired the formation of other prison hospice programs, he said. The foundation that benefitted from the film sent 500 copies of it to prisons across the nation, he said.

"I always felt in my heart that I really wanted to do something bigger and much more in-depth," he said. "And longer term. I wanted to go into a prison and live there for a year. Which is kind of dramatic, but kind of what I wanted to do."

To research for the "Prison Terminal" film, Barens took "field trips" to prisons in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and Kentucky. He proposed the idea to the leadership of the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa.

"I get there (Iowa) and it turns out they were using the earlier (Angola) film as a teaching tool in their hospice program," he said. "So they knew me, they knew my work. So just with that notoriety, the prison said, for the first time ever, you can come here 24-7 for up to a year."

Barens ended up filming for six months at the prison.

"The access was perfect - I was there with the guys all the time," he said. "They got to know me, I got to know them."

Barens said he didn't even take out his camera for the first month, so the prisoners could get to know him. He had no film crew - it was just him and his camera.

One of those prisoners he got to know was Hall, who had been in the prison's infirmary on a long-term basis after having a heart attack a decade earlier. Hall had been an Army Ranger during World War II, a prisoner of war for 14 months, and was given the key to the city of his hometown of Keokuk, Iowa, when he returned home in 1946.

In 1984, Hall was convicted of a murder he committed in 1977, and given a life sentence at the age of 62. At the time of his death at age 83, he was considered the oldest prisoner in the Iowa correction system.

Barens acknowledged that the documentary hits on a variety of issues: the treatment of veterans, treatment of the elderly, as well as treatment of prisoners.

"He came back from World War II, he was trained to kill," he said of Hall. "This isn't in the film, but he was given some cigarettes and $50 by the Army and told to forget what he did in the last three years. He was a war hero; he marched down the streets of Keokuk. Eventually, it caught up with him, and he got into alcohol, and his life pretty much spiraled after that."

In the film, Hall talks about his son who became addicted to drugs and eventually killed himself. Hall murdered an alleged drug dealer, but it's unclear whether the person had supplied his son with drugs.

"In Jack's head, the chronology is very loose," Barens said. "He killed an alleged drug dealer because at one point his son was a drug addict and eventually killed himself. So I think Jack, being who he was and how he was trained and how he was thinking, I think he thought getting rid of any drug dealer would do society good."

The inmate caretakers in the hospice are also orderlies in the prison's infirmary, Barens said.

"These guys, this is the first time they've ever had a program that could offer some kind of redemption for what they did," he said. "They all realize they're in there for life."

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