The Point of Literature

The Point of Literature

October 21, 2015 | Marc Kornblatt

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I did not come to make Dostoevsky Behind Bars because of a life-changing experience I had with the criminal justice system. The documentary initially grew out of my love for literature. As a journalist, playwright, children’s book author, and teacher, I have devoted a great deal of the past 30 years to the written word.  

I did not come to make Dostoevsky Behind Bars because of a life-changing experience I had with the criminal justice system. The documentary initially grew out of my love for literature. As a journalist, playwright, children’s book author, and teacher, I have devoted a great deal of the past 30 years to the written word.  

My wife, a professor of Slavic language and literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, had several graduate students who were teaching inmates at Oakhill Correctional Center, about a half hour from where we lived. I met a few of them, read some press coverage they had gotten, and found the project intriguing enough that when I decided to take a year off from teaching elementary school at a high-poverty school, I thought I would visit the prison in order to see the other end of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline where more than a few of the students at my school have wound up.  

After my first visit, I decided that I wanted to work as a volunteer in the literature program alongside two of the graduate students. The text discussion had been so rich, the seriousness of the students so genuine, that I thought it would be a productive way to spend my time away from the classroom. That was in the early fall of 2012. Before the year was out, I felt convinced that the project would make an excellent film. 

As a part-time filmmaker whose first full-length documentary (“Street Pulse”) followed a homeless ex-con who was living under a bridge and trying to make it off the street, I had already established my credibility working with the disenfranchised. So when I told the inmates I had gotten to know that I wanted to tell their story, they were both excited and pessimistic. They appreciated my interest, but they doubted I would ever get permission to bring a film crew onto the prison grounds. 

It took five months, and more than a few follow-up emails and phone calls, to get the necessary go-ahead for the project, but once the prison authorities signed on, they granted me and my two-person crew (videographer and audio technician) full access to the entire prison grounds, from the cafeteria to the segregation unit where prisoners spent time in solitary confinement for misbehavior.  

Originally, I thought I would make a short film, but the footage we captured, together with the interviews I conducted with inmates eager to tell their stories, was so powerful, that the project turned into a 56-minute film, which won an award for excellence when it premiered at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April 2014 and has since has been screened at festivals across the country and on public television.  

What sets my film apart from many other prison documentaries is that I devote most of it to the study of literature and the pursuit of the arts in general, rather than to the topic of incarceration, showing viewers the human side of inmates while drawing parallels between them and the graduate students who teach them. 

Indeed, many people who have viewed the film tell me it celebrates the importance of studying the humanities as much as much as it shows viewers what it is like to live in a minimum-security prison. And that was exactly my point.  

My goal was not to pass judgment on the men featured in my film. Instead, I aimed to show how much they had in common with the graduate students who taught them and how Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina had the potential to delight and enlighten them all, creating moments of grace in a place most of us think of as the bottom rung of society.  

 

Born in Edison, New Jersey, Marc Kornblatt started out as an actor in New York after college. He turned to playwriting, earned a master’s degree in journalism, and has since written for magazines and newspapers, published children’s books, married, moved to Wisconsin, and become a father and a school teacher. His first feature-length doc, Street Pulse, aired on Wisconsin Public Television and was screened at festivals in Beloit, Wisconsin; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Madison, Wisconsin. His second feature, Dostoevsky Behind Bars, is a 2015 Media for a Just Society Awards finalist.