'Serving Life': Facing Death, Inmates Find Humanity Tell Me More continues its series on aging and the end of life by exploring a film about maximum-security prisoners who voluntarily care for ill and dying fellow inmates. The documentary Serving Life is narrated by Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker and directed by journalist Lisa R. Cohen.
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'Serving Life': Facing Death, Inmates Find Humanity

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'Serving Life': Facing Death, Inmates Find Humanity

'Serving Life': Facing Death, Inmates Find Humanity

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This week, TELL ME MORE has been exploring how families and our country are grappling with aging and the end of life. So far, we've talked about financial issues and care-giving and we know these can be difficult conversations to have and to hear, but this is a journey that just about all of us will face at some point.

So we thought it important to help prepare for the challenges that we will face if we are lucky enough to advance in age. And now, we want to talk about one particular journey to the end of life for those who are behind bars at a place like the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Angola is the country's largest maximum security prison. Many of the more than 5,000 inmates have been convicted of rape, kidnapping and murder and their sentences are so long that many, if not most, will not live to see life outside prison walls.

Angola's warden, Burl Cain, began to think of how to serve the needs of prisoners who are living out their final days there, so he created a hospice program that is largely supported by other inmates. It's the subject of a documentary called "Serving Life."

Here's a clip from the film and the speaker is Warden Cain.


BURL CAIN: I can teach you skills and trades, but I'd just make a smarter criminal unless we get something in our heart, unless we become moral. The spin-off from it was most incredible because the criminal is a selfish person who, whatever he wants, he takes it. So the way to be the opposite of that taker is to be the giver. The ultimate gift is to be the hospice caregiver.

MARTIN: The film premiered this summer on the Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN. It explores what is owed to a dying prisoner and whether the experience of caring for others can help workers transform their own lives.

Academy Award winning actor, Forest Whitaker, is the narrator and executive producer of the film. The director of the film is award winning journalist, Lisa Cohen, and they are both with us now.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

FOREST WHITAKER: It's great to be here.

LISA COHEN: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Mr. Whitaker, I'll start with you. People, of course, know your work as an actor. You won your Oscar in 2006 for "The Last King of Scotland." Many people will have seen you in "The Great Debaters" or "The Crying Game" or "Platoon," you know, many other films.

But you've also gotten recognition for your documentary work. A lot of people, for example, will have seen your film about Newark, New Jersey, "Brick City." So I wanted to ask you what inspired you to move behind the camera and what drew you specifically to this project?

WHITAKER: A number of things, as far as doing documentaries. One is that I think that one of the most empowering things that can happen for each of us as individuals is to really be heard. And I think that when we start to explore stories of individuals, we start to see the connections between us and them and this, like, allows us to become more human.

We got to explore our incarcerated prisoners and what occurs in their lives, and how they are able to search for redemption and also to search for a deepening of their own compassion, which hopefully moves towards love. And I thought that Lisa was doing something really exciting, so I wanted to support it and pulled the money together to be able to do it.

MARTIN: Lisa, I know you shot a documentary at Angola some years ago. And is that how you heard about the hospice program?

COHEN: Yeah. I had done several pieces there, starting with an hour for ABC News on the death penalty. And I kept in touch with them and I learned that not only was this a hospice program where the inmates cared for their dying fellow inmates, but that there was a fair number of burnout - it's a very hard job to do - and that periodically, they would train a new crop of volunteer inmates and that that was going to be happening soon.

And so, as a storyteller, you know how this is. You suddenly say to yourself, well, this feels like the way to tell this story.

MARTIN: Well, why did you want to tell the story? And one of the things I think is interesting to point out is that, you know, often, you know, in a program like this, we'll do a disclaimer. We'll say, okay. We're going to do adult themes here, so if this is not appropriate for you, then maybe this is not the right time to listen. And it's interesting that you open the film with that kind of notice, even though, you know, there's no violence in it.

COHEN: Right.

MARTIN: There's no - you know, not what we traditionally consider...

COHEN: Adult content.

MARTIN: ...an adult content, but you have to say, you know what? There are scenes of death and dying here. So why were you attracted to playing that story?

COHEN: Yeah. Well, what I love about these kinds of stories is that they seem sad on the face of things. They seem like they're difficult to watch or difficult to be a part of making, but the humanity, as Forest said - it's incredibly inspiring. And it makes me feel wonderful to be able to bring that to the public.

MARTIN: Let me play a short clip from the film. This is Charles Rogers, a volunteer trainer. As you mentioned, the people have to be trained to do this work. Maybe it seems simple, but it isn't. It isn't. It involves, not just physical care, but you know, emotional care. And here's a short clip.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I feel helpless because the dude is suffering, ain't nothing you can do. One of those breaths could be his last one, you know. It sounds like he's drowning.

CHARLES ROGERS: You don't see worse. If you stay in the program - yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's a hell of a thing to watch, I mean, knowing it could be you in that same situation.

MARTIN: Lisa, what about that? What about the experience of being so close to people and witnessing what may be their last moments - in some cases, are their last moments? Talk to me about that if you would.

COHEN: Well, it's hard and it's prolonged. In the case of these men, some of them were dying very quickly and some of them were dying very slowly. And when you are filming, there's this sense that, you know, there's a lens between you and the subject and there is this sense of distance that you get to keep. But there were moments when the distance was pretty close.

MARTIN: Forest Whitaker, could I ask you about this question of, you know, the rightness of being there at such a vulnerable time and intimate time for people?

WHITAKER: I think when you explore death, I mean, it's just something that is like, for many, it's a universal fear. I think, in this case, you have a very heightened environment, where people are watching death on a daily basis. The ethics are very complicated. I think there's the ethics of showing these stories and showing people who have perpetrated crimes on others and, in some way, humanizing them. I think what Lisa did was pretty amazing, that she was able to not compromise, showing the events that occur, the darkness, the things that some of the individuals - the crimes they had committed.

And that allows us, I think, to explore those things in ourselves because if we can see someone who's fallen to a certain degree, have committed certain crimes, we can look at the failures and the pains, the things that we don't allow ourselves to forgive and it's a great opportunity to do that. I think, to me, the ethical question starts to eliminate itself, because it goes into a moral question. It goes into a universal - almost question of God question, a question of the universe and what our place in it really is. The biggest question, in some ways.

MARTIN: You know, as an actor, it seems to me that you live inside other people's worlds in a way that most of us do not, so you may have explored these questions already, but did working on this project bring anything up for you in the whole question of issues around death or issues around, you know, compassion and being judged?

WHITAKER: It did. I mean, it certainly made me think about my own death and how those days will be and how I would hope the ending will be and how it may become. You know, I know none of these men were expecting to be in this prison dying, you know, with men taking care of them, in diapers. And I mean, it makes you have to ponder the question of what your end will be. Thinking, if these individuals are capable of doing this, then what am I capable of out here in my freedom, in the world, you know?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the documentary, "Serving Life." It tells the story of a hospice program at Louisiana's Angola Prison. That's the country's largest maximum security prison and the hospice program there is both for the inmates. It's also run largely by inmates with the help of volunteers and staff.

Joining us is award winning actor, Forest Whitaker. He was the narrator and executive producer of the project. And also, director Lisa Cohen, and award winning journalist.

The film has already gotten wonderful reviews, but you've got people who are in the film who have really committed some awful, awful crimes. You're not shy about pointing that out in the film. You're very, very clear about...

COHEN: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...the circumstances around each of the inmates. I wanted to ask. You said it was very important to point that out. Why?

COHEN: Yeah. First and foremost, the Oprah Winfrey Network people were adamant that it was clear what these men had done. It was real important to them, and for the same reasons as it was for us, that we didn't want people to lose sight of who these men were. We wanted you to experience them in the here and now. We didn't want to actually devote the documentary, itself, to talking about their crimes and their pasts, but we needed a shorthand to say, you know, let's not forget where we are. Let's not forget who these men have been in the past and what they've done and why they're here. That was something we came back to, time and again, with the subtitles over their faces every time we'd start a new act.

MARTIN: Well, there are two issues. On the one hand, there is always this question of - are we creating, you know, a sort of gauze around people who have done bad things and have really hurt other people and are we creating - as journalists, by focusing on an issue like this - creating sympathy that is not warranted for people who have done really bad things?

But there's another side of that. And the other side of that is that, are we, as journalists, focusing - you know, not doing enough to point out just how difficult incarceration is? Also, the fact that the prison sentences are what they are in Louisiana? Many people feel that, you know, this is an example of - there have been books about this - American apartheid, in essence. That the justice system there is so heavily weighted against African Americans, specifically African American men, that part of the reason people do die in prison there is that the system's so stacked against them, they don't have a chance?

So I just wanted to ask, Lisa, and obviously, you have a right to make the film you want to make.

COHEN: Right.

MARTIN: But I do want to ask you about that.

COHEN: There are, like, a hundred films you could make at Angola. I mean, every time we would turn a corner, we would talk to somebody or hear something that felt like it could be another story to tell. And this was the story we went down to tell and we have the four hour director's cut version of it. We'd never be able to get it on the air. We shot hundreds of hours of video and, you know, I know there are people who are out there who are telling other stories, and that just isn't the one we were telling here.

MARTIN: Forest Whitaker, any final thoughts from you? You know, I always want to ask this question, but people hate this question, which is what do you hope people will draw from the film? But I'm going to ask it.

WHITAKER: I'm hoping that people will understand, or look inside themselves, in posing the question of what are our responsibilities towards others? You know, there are so many, particularly African American males, incarcerated in prisons across the country, to such an astronomical degree that I think you would want to call it apartheid. You know, and I'm hoping that people will carry some of that with them. If it's possible there, then it's possible, of course, here. So that's what I hope will occur.

MARTIN: Forest Whitaker is an academy award winning actor. He is a producer. He's the narrator and executive producer of "Serving Life" and he was with us from Burbank, California. Lisa Cohen is the director of the documentary, "Serving Life." She's a veteran journalist, an award winning journalist. She's currently teaching journalism at Columbia University and she was kind enough to join us from Atlantic City, where we caught up with her.

I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WHITAKER: Thank you.

COHEN: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

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