Moments of grace at a local correctional facility.
Dostoevsky Behind Bars, a Wisconsin's Own selection at the Wisconsin Film Festival, informs through osmosis. It does not preach, judge or pretend to be anything more than it is: a marvelous and assured documentary about graduate students who volunteer to discuss literature with inmates at the Oakhill Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in Oregon, Wis.
Not only do you come away beginning to know the inmates and their prison lives, but you feel as if you have stepped into some private, magical moments of shared discovery.
The winner of a Wisconsin Film Festival Golden Badger award, this documentary was produced, directed and edited by Madison filmmaker Marc Kornblatt, all for about $9,000. Cinematographer William Roach, a contract videographer for ESPN, provides stunning and essential footage. But Kornblatt, a fourth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary, is no rookie in the film world, either. Through his production company, Refugee Films, he has directed a number of works, including the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival selection Street Pulse.
Kornblatt says Dostoevsky Behind Bars was inspired by his own volunteer work at the prison. But this isn't simply a film about incarcerated men.
"It's a story of people.... It's about the old-fashioned way of telling stories. It's not about tweeting. It's about the power of the word, about sitting and thinking and talking and being engaged with something," he says.
The film is also about choices, and how some of these choices have dire consequences.
"For me, the film is like the metaphor of the sand and the oyster. It's about how the sand can get into the oyster and make it miserable, but when it's done, the oyster has a pearl," Kornblatt says.
Though the inmates' discussions of literature are not a silver-bullet solution to their problems, activities like this can shed light on humanity in moving ways.
"I'm not saying anything I've shown is going to reclaim a life and set these men on the right path," Kornblatt says. "But despite some of the horrible things they have done, when we were talking about great literature, there were moments that were truly filled with grace."
The film also illustrates the transcendent power of the humanities, which can benefit everyone from grad students to society's most troubled members.
"While there are people who should stay in prison who need to be medicated, most of us need to be educated and elevated," Kornblatt says. He adds that seeing "crucial points" from their lives reflected in literature may give them perspective, which in turn may lead to better decisions.
"Something [inmates] got out of a class may have softened them...at a crucial time, and maybe they won't make another stupid choice," he says.