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The Watchman: Books 'Behind Bars' and Netflix Gets Its 'Irish' Up

Books ‘Behind Bars’ on PBS

College Behind Bars, a four-part documentary series about inmates getting degrees in prison, starts on PBS Nov. 25. Lynn Novick directs, Ken Burns executive produces and Sarah Botstein produces.

The film is gripping. Its seeds were planted when Novick and Botstein guest-lectured at a prison, talking about their Prohibition documentary from 2011. The inmates, who were part of an education program known as Bard Prison Initiative, asked sophisticated questions. “We didn’t know what to expect, and what happened was truly extraordinary for us,” Novick said. “On every level it was mind-blowing and exhilarating.”

The filmmakers spent four years in prisons, amassing 400 hours of footage. It took some time for the producers to get used to all the rules about entering and exiting the prisons. “It took a while to get used to, but we did after a while,” Novick said. “As much as you can get used to being in a maximum security prison.”

Prison education programs are not widely available, a victim of cost-cutting and political battles. The viewer is instantly won over by the thoughtful, intelligent inmates who turn up in the film. The project began in 2013. Novick first thought it would be feature-length, but the content did not fit into two hours. “The stories were so rich and the people’s insights so profound,” she said.

What does the viewer take away from College Behind Bars? Novick mentions “the tyranny of low expectations,” where inmates are hardly reformed during their time behind bars. Give them a chance to better themselves, she added, and society as a whole benefits.

“Look what happens when people have access to educational opportunities,” said Novick. “They are transformed by them.”

Netflix Gets Its ‘Irish’ Up

As you may have heard, The Irishman starts on Netflix Nov. 27. Martin Scorsese directed with Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel in the cast. The film is about mob hitman Frank Sheeran, played by DeNiro.

The New Yorker said, “At 76, and after more than 50 years in the business, Scorsese is still, to some extent, the hyper-smart kid, cradled in the cinema stalls, and lost in awe at the lives — so much tougher and nastier than his own, and so thrillingly uncultured — being led up there on-screen.”

Santa Takes the Cake on Food Network

On a lighter note, Santa’s Baking Blizzard begins on Food Network Nov. 28. It sees ice sculptors and cake masters working their holiday magic, and vying for a stocking holding $25,000. Casey Webb hosts. Gifted bakers plus talented ice sculptors result in “miraculous displays that take cake and ice," said Webb, "to unprecedented holiday heights.”