A local filmmaker will carry his message to South by Southwest this year – hoping to influence the way society thinks about kids who’ve committed crimes. The documentary takes viewers inside a juvenile corrections center where inmates study Russian literature along with college students their own age.
Filmmaker Chris Farina spent five years working on the documentary he called Seats at the Table. He had to raise over $100,000, lay the ground work for bringing a camera into a maximum security prison for kids, follow UVA students into the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center 25 times and pare down 150 hours of material to tell the tale. Professor Andy Kaufman teaches to a select group of inmates and students from the University of Virginia.
The course is called Books Behind Bars, and Farina says it’s a laboratory for making friends and building bridges:
“That ability of young people to bond in a way, to find that openness, to be able to share themselves, and then the other thing that’s a real strength of this program is the bringing together of the two different groups which, let’s face it, in our society happens less and less,” Farina says.
For the prisoners there’s a new sense of confidence according to Andy Block, Virginia’s Director of Juvenile Justice:
“Not putting a lid on students’ ability to be successful is important, and to be stimulated and engaged is important. I can talk Tolstoy with a UVA student, and we can share ideas, and we are equals.
And for UVA students like Kelsey Bowman, there’s a new perspective on prisoners.
“I think one of the most surprising things was hearing that Jalen and I have the same favorite author. That was so cool. Oh my God, you read that book too? I love that!" she gushes. "By week six or seven it wasn’t like I was going to a correctional facility. It was like I was going into this room to talk and hang out with my friends. These young men are just that – young men. They have hopes and dreams and fears and flaws. We’re all the same.”
21-year-old inmate Justin Pugh was also in the class.
“I learned how to open up to people more," he recalls. "I learned that it’s not all about me. It’s about other people too.”
He’s out now – living and working in Charlottesville – but he still remembers how much the 10-week course meant to him and the other prisonerss.
“It gave us something to do. It gave us something to look forward to. When the class was over everybody was down,” says Pugh.
Juvenile Corrections chief Andy Block would like to see Books Behind Bars expanded to other subjects and other prisons.
“Russian literature probably lends itself particularly well to discussions like this, but it wouldn’t be the only thing," he argues. "You could imagine a class on music, or history, or poetry.”
And Chris Farina, who made the documentary, hopes to build support for that. It would be great, he says, if the film were broadcast, but if he can show it to educators at South by Southwest in Austin next month, to lawmakers and others who make policy in this country, that would be good enough.
“If it can move the audience to no longer see a correctional center or a prison as this wall where they just have their stereotypes, but actually realize there are individuals in there with hearts and souls, then maybe it will actually help them to realize that we need to change in order to make a better world. If we can get this in front of the right people to replicate this kind of program in their own community, then that’s a successful film as well.”
Seats at the Table was an official selection of the Virginia Film Festival, the Global Peace Film Fest in Orlando, the United Nations Association Festival, and Richmond’s international Film Festival in April.
For more information, go to https://rosaliafilms.com/films/seats-at-the-table/