Editor’s note: This article was written before the Academy Awards. “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” won in the Best Documentary Short Subject category.
With Hollywood’s elite ready to celebrate at the Academy Awards this Sunday, names like Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto and Jennifer Lawrence are predicted by many to take home Oscar gold.
One name up for an award who probably isn’t familiar to many is documentary director Edgar Barens, a gay filmmaker whose film “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” is up for Best Short Documentary this year.
“I was just hit by a wall of emotion and started crying when I heard. I never sought the Oscar thing but when it happened, I was just overwhelmed,” Barens says. “This could be a game changer.”
Growing up in Chicago with European parents, Barens was exposed to the cinema at a very young age.
“I was always immersed in film. As a kid, my brother and I would go to film screenings and foreign films all the time,” he says. “By the time I got to college, I had no idea you could study film, and I was hooked when I saw the classes.”
Barens received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cinema and photography from Southern Illinois University, but found that it wasn’t the easiest thing to make a living as a filmmaker.
“My dad was an artist and always had projects he was working on and I got his work ethic. No matter what dead-end job I was working at, and I had many of them — such as a phlebotomist when making this film — I was always working on something on the side,” he says. “What I found was many of these temp jobs ended up blossoming into film jobs.”
Barens did company films, short documentaries and any project a company would need a camera and story for. The 53-year-old took most of his savings to invest in making his Oscar-nominated film and HBO came along with funds to finish the project.
“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” follows the terminally ill Jack Hall, jailed in maximum-security prison at the Iowa State Penitentiary, as he faces his final days with the assistance of hospice care provided by workers drawn from the prison population.
“For me, I was giving a voice to the prisoners who don’t often get heard,” Barens says. “I was celebrating a program that was developed in their benefit to show people that even though they have done terrible things, at the end of the day, we have to be better than they were when they committed their crimes and show them dignity in their deaths.”
Barens spent six months shooting footage behind the walls of the Iowa State Penitentiary and has put together a poignant account of how the hospice experience can profoundly touch even the forsaken lives of the incarcerated.
It was a topic that wasn’t a new one for Barens, who had done a much smaller film about hospice care in a prison in Louisiana earlier in his career. That was just a two-week shoot about setting up a hospice in a prison, and he always hoped to take a much more elaborate look at the subject.
Going in, he didn’t know exactly what story he was going to tell, but fate turned the attention of the film to Hall, a decorated soldier who went to prison for 21 years for murdering a drug dealer.
“Two months into my stay, Jack started to get sick and it became a no-brainer that he was the guy I was going to follow,” he says. “It’s a hybrid cinema verite. I wanted to make it observational, but I needed information from people so the verite provides a buffer between the talking heads and the observational footage. People lose track that they are in a prison, but you get these little reminders, like when Jack is shackled.”
Barens says he has plenty of footage about the workers, the hospice and the prisoners that didn’t make it into the finished film, and is working on a web-based media project that will let viewers learn more about what they see in the film.
The out filmmaker doesn’t think it’s necessary that his documentaries only deal with LGBT issues but neither does he shy away from the subject, even shooting a series of anti-homophobia public service announcements.
“Being gay is a big part of my life but I don’t think everything film-wise has to have a gay theme,” he says. “I would never shy away from it. I know some ideas of mine coming down the pike have a major gay theme, but not everything has to have that theme.”
A few days after learning of his award nomination, Barens flew to Sundance and learned from past nominees that regardless of whether he wins or not, his film career will probably be an easier ride.
“Just with the nomination they told me to expect not having to worry about how difficult it is to get funding for my next film, because people will recognize the nomination,” he says. “Not that people will throw money at me, but it should help greatly. I’m prepping myself for a big change, but you never know.”
Turning to Sunday, Barens will be dressing to the nines and bringing his mom as his date, and is looking forward to walking the red carpet with the star-studded guest list.
“I would like to wing it, but there are a few names I absolutely have to mention but there is a chance I may not even know who I am,” he says. “I’ll have a cheat sheet with some names and just let the rest come from my heart. That’s if I am lucky enough. It’s pretty nice to be nominated and I feel good for that accomplishment.”
“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” will air on HBO at 8 p.m., March 31.