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Review by Kanaan Trotter
I go to college. Being taught is what makes up my life, and it would be foul play to act as if this were not the case. I cannot conjure up ideas, postulate moving arguments, or construct a philosophy without it coming from what I am being taught, from what smolders in my bones. Consider this an explanation for my approach to this movie. I blame it on my professors.
Documentaries are a misunderstood genre. They have become something strange and aloof from movies. They’re not really movies to us. No doubt they are films, but movies (real movies) are full of cutting cameras and incendiary scenery. We didn’t come to the theaters to see crooked, yellow smiles and sit-down discussions. If we wanted those we wouldn’t have looked for distractions at the cinema in the first place.
The genre is not as nuanced it might seem, though. It is, in a very real way, history. It is the telling of the past. And this is nothing to be put away in it’s own genre. History is fiction. History is narrative. And this is imperative to realize before looking at Serving Life. Stories, all stories, are a collection of events. They are comprised of specific and individual characters, locations, props, actions of those characters, and consequences to those actions. Every move, every word spoken, is about moving the narrative of the story towards the conclusion. To put it broader, there is always a context in the mind of the narrator. Let us refer to a well-known (and too often over-used) example: Christopher Nolan has in mind a very specific character when he presents Batman in his Dark Knight trilogy. Knowing the countless adaptations of the hero, Nolan is confronted with a strange problem. Indeed he has basics to cover, but what about the small pieces? What of the things that really make his protagonist human? What are things worth noting about the character? What does the audience need to see, to hear, to know in order for the Batman that Nolan has in mind to become the Batman they see? In short, of all the millions of moments which have passed in Bruce Wayne’s life, which moments need to be put in a 2.5 hour long movie? Such decisions constitute "history." Any book of history, any account of the past is the picking out of particular data, points in time, for the purpose of proving a point. No historian is ever unbiased. Indeed, even his claim to be unbiased is a bias. He will approach the facts from a particular vantage point, leaving out people and events and places while including others. Every decision is made in the context of what the historian has set out to show, whether he knows it or not. He cannot escape what he believes, and so the choice to describe this and not that emerges from beliefs about what is worth recounting, what is noteworthy. The jump, then, is not difficult. Movies are histories. And even more so, documentaries are histories. They are narratives constructed of persons, places, dialogue, and actions. They are fictions. They are stories. They cannot be entirely true because they cannot be entire. We watch a movie impossible in reality and yet when someone tells us, “You know they couldn’t really do that,” no sane person is willing to get up and walk out. Why? Because we know, inherently, that truth is not dependent upon fiction or non-fiction. Jesus talks in parables. The life of Jesus is a parable. It is a story.
Serving Life then is a story. It is a documentary, a narrative, a fiction. The film takes place entirely in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In Angola Prison, all inmates have been sentenced to life behind bars, many of them having been removed from death row and the documentary makes sure to remind us regularly of the crime that has brought a prisoner to Angola. The story is centered around the volunteer hospice program that takes place inside the prison. Being in Angola Prison for life means dying there. And as inmates grow old and fragile, many of them diagnosed with some cancer or disease, it becomes necessary to take care of them as they quickly cannot do so themselves. A group of 2 or 3 chief nurses head up a volunteer hospice program where younger inmates sign up to be trained in hospice care. Bluntly, they sign up to watch older inmates die, as the film makes clear in repeated dialog, so they don’t die alone. We follow a handful of new volunteers as they commit, are chosen, begin their duties, and go on to quickly become veterans. Central to the goal of the movie though, we see their interactions with the quickly deteriorating men they take care of. Death and dying suddenly become near and present. Pain is startlingly visible to them. They hear groans, change diapers, wash down, and sit to talk with their patients. Upon completing their training they are quickly thrown into a 24 hour rotating duty, watching a patient in his last days. Again for the reason that they not die alone. After the first act we are given a closer look at the new volunteers. Each of them has a story, nothing we wouldn’t expect. Put into Angola for first-degree robbery, first and second degree murder. The new volunteers are shown as the movie progresses to be men living in the constant shadow of their crime. They cannot escape from the reality of a society that speaks every day to them of the atrocity they committed. All of the prisoners we follow have a strongly matured understanding of their present lives and the film makes it a point to hear what they have to say and then, holding those thoughts to our ear, follow them subsequently as they perform in hospice and, for a few that we see, interact with their families outside of prison.
It would be simple to say that this is the end of the film’s treatment. As if the documentary were saying, “Look. Hardened criminals. Not so hardened, eh?” And yet there’s more to this. While nothing else radical happens in the events of movie broadly speaking, the film, let us recall it’s nature as a narrative, is intent on driving home an idea about these inmates not as results of their crimes, even in their regret, but more. When speaking of the hospice program one inmate, volunteering for more than a decade, says, “Giving back. That’s what really matters. What I need… I threw that away a long time ago.” And this is the kind of speech that is the sharp side of the documentary’s knife. What director Lisa Cohen is out to show in her characters is a true humanity, an idea that we’ve barred from taking residence in prisons. Our judicial system has judged the crimes of these inmates, has placed them for the entirety of their lives behind bars, and in doing so has declared to them that their crimes are, in fact, unforgiveable. And what the film wants further to point out is the agreement that the inmates have, indeed every inmate interviewed or recorded, with the fact that they are paying the just penalty for their actions. None of them doubts the truth that it is a necessity that they spend their lives in the shadow of one event. Time and again in interviews between and voiced over shots of tending to dying inmates, the volunteers say that what they have been sentenced to is right. And because of their own actions they choose themselves to give by hospice to the dying and helpless others who stood exactly where they stood. The care given to the dying is no simple job, nor enjoyable.
A striking moment comes when the warden of Angola Prison comes to visit the one man the film watches go from inmate with a sore throat to a man killed by cancer. Kevin Hollingsworth sits in a room, visibly ravaged by the cancer in his body, more tired with every breath and weaker with every movement. Yet this prisoner takes every moment he can gather the breath to speak to tell the volunteers thank you. The Warden hears of the matter and, for some reason never given to the viewer, decides to come visit Kevin. In this last 15 minutes of the movie we are given a striking narrative driving home the documentary's point. The Warden promises ice cream at any time to the dying Kevin who sits propped up on an old, sterilized couch. In a following interview the warden commends the inmates volunteers, "I could never do the things they do." In the next quick minutes we watch Kevin Hollingsworth die. The deterioration is clear. A shot of him being helped. A shot of his last family visiting. And a shot of the man slipping slowly away with two nurses and two hospice volunteers around him. The warden, commenting on the whole movie it seems, says of the death, “God’s about forgiveness. I think it’s time to forgive when you get here.”
The aim of the movie is not Christian. With Forest Whitaker as the producer we ought not trick ourselves into something so naïve. But it is not a far cry to say that the call of the film- to realize that these men do not die when they walk into Angola, but finally come to life- is a subject in need of Christian thought. Indeed, prison needs Christian thought. It is not a license then for us to accept all the film offers, but we ought not think ourselves great when we see a convicted criminal changing the diapers of a man groaning under cancer, or giving water to an old, parched mouth. Christ has things to say about these men. “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”