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NYFF Review: ‘College Behind Bars’

NYFF Review: ‘College Behind Bars’

An extraordinary portrait of students in the prison system

College Behind Bars
(USA, 222 min.)
Dir. Lynn Novick

The first hour of Lynn Novick’s four-part documentary series College Behind Bars plays out pretty much how one would expect this story to be told. [The four-part work screens in a single feature presentation at the New York Film Festival.] We meet a series of incarcerated individuals in a number of New York State correctional facilities who are enrolled in the Bard Prisoner Initiative (BPI). Ostensibly a free college education for those behind bars, BPI is set up for a disparate group of individuals who have traded sweeping floors or laundry duty for book studies. For the first episode, they tell their stories, the history of the programme is explained, and we have a fine if superficial view of this situation.

It’s in the subsequent three hours that Novick gently and convincingly builds upon this intro to get at the heart of not only the socio-political and law enforcement ramifications of the opportunities for these students, but also manages to deftly tease out the stories of their lives that brought them in conflict with the law. The simple thing would be to create a film series that over-glorifies the situation, brushing aside the complex moral and ethical circumstances revolving around these men and women. Yet by proceeding in a deliberate yet precise way, College Behind Bars builds into something quite extraordinary.

Novick is probably best known for her collaborations with Ken Burns, the iconic documentarian who serves as Executive Producer on this work. Novick has often been tasked with doing the interviews for their collaborative megaprojects for PBS, and much of her gift for eliciting stories from even the most reticent is fully on display here.

Shot over a period of four years, the film focusses on groups of male and female prisoners that live the twin lives of college student and prisoner. There’s talk of the lack of collegiate distraction afforded by being cloistered, yet the constant fear and institutional nonsense endemic inside jail effects even the most scholarly of the group. In one appalling, Kafkaesque moment, a prisoner is charged with incitement after his creative writing project is found to contain violent and sexually provocative rhetoric and put in solitary confinement and stripped of his ability to attend class. As one fellow classmate/prisoner puts it, he’s put in the hole for doing his homework.

Another haunting moment occurs when an act of violence by an engaged and eloquent student results in confiscation of months and months his of notes and articles, which were serving as the basis for an undergraduate thesis, and then were subsequently (and conveniently) lost by the system. Beyond the stories of childhood mayhem, revenge killings, horrific traumas and the like, I hate to admit that the deletion of all this work is the most personally haunting, as someone who still has thesis-related stress dreams some two decades after I completed my own project.

The film touches upon numerous hot-button topics, from the mass-incarceration factors that occupy the American judicial system to the Clinton Crime Bill that slashed didactic programmes, forcing private money to be used to fund them. The ties to recidivism and education are laid bare, and a central theme that’s repeated throughout is the notion that the individuals are finally given a chance to exercise academic muscles, freeing their minds from their normal fixation on simply surviving in prison or on the street.

The professors from Bard constantly refer to the fact that the standards in the prison education system are identical to those at their prestigious institution. We witness classes: everything from Intermediate Mandarin to calculus to classical literature. The prison outfits almost blend into becoming school uniforms. The intelligence and eloquence on display is often humbling. Yet throughout there are constant reminders of not only the unique challenges these students undergo just to stay afloat, but of course, the very real (and often horrific) things they did to be in jail in the first place.

Debates about what prison is for, be it punishment or rehabilitation, are hardly new. But as Novick’s doc brilliantly demonstrates, under these dichotomies and political postures are the stories of real individuals who often suffered from circumstances almost more abhorrent than the lives they’ve spent within prison walls. These stories are never presented as excuses or explanations, but rather as a kind of witnessing. They are narratives made palpable and comprehensible to those that haven’t lived through them, thanks in part to the educational opportunities that have given the students the tools to finally give voice to their situation.

Throughout we are drawn in fully to the ups and downs of college life, from the triumphs of a debate or thesis defense, to the halted opportunities of those whose actions in jail result in the loss of their ability to attend the school. If there’s ever a better indication of the privilege of education it’s this, the notion that only through model behaviour and obeying the strictures of the guards can one hope to even enter into the scholastic system.

It’s notable that the union representing the guards refused to participate, resulting in their appearances being blurred out and their perspectives of the individuals we hear from absent. There’s talk by a warden that speaks to some of the hostility that is raised by the schooling – many of the guards themselves lack higher education – and that is certainly one vector that could use further exploration in a follow-up piece.

Novick’s film certainly doesn’t present these educational opportunities as panacea for all ills, but it’s difficult to avoid being swayed by the testimony of those involved and the changes we witness over the doc’s scope. This film injects into political discourse a powerful indication of just how schooling shapes those that grab them, resulting in a deeply humanistic film that conveys all the deep and troubling sides of these issues. The happy, simple version of College Behind Bars is contained in the first act, and a lesser work would have ended it there, with a nice, feel-good and simplistic wrap-up. Credit is owed to the director and her team to keep digging, resulting in a quite extraordinary and effective film that illuminates brilliantly the lives of these men and women and the teachers that give them the opportunities they never had outside the prison walls.

Associated Press: Ken Burns is behind new grant for film on Flannery O’Connor

NEW YORK (AP) — Ken Burns is inaugurating an annual prize for makers of historical films with a $200,000 grant to the people behind an upcoming movie about the late Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor.

The movie “Flannery” shows the influence behind the novelist and short story writer’s work, as she lived in a rural Southern town and struggled with lupus. The author of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” died in 1964 at age 39.

Burns, the noted documentarian, said he knows from experience the expense involved in getting projects like these done.

The film by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco “made me go out and buy her books,” he said.

Burns’ nonprofit Better Angels Society is collaborating with philanthropists Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine and the Library of Congress in funding the award. Judges sifted through some 80 entrants, he said.

“We were stunned not only by the volume of submissions but by the quality of them,” he said.

A $50,000 grant is being given to the makers of “Mae West: Dirty Blonde,” the awards’ runner-up, with four $25,000 grants given to other finalists.

The annual prize will recognize a documentary maker who uses original research and a compelling narrative to tell stories that touch on some aspect of American history.

New York Times: Flannery O’Connor Documentary Wins New Award From Library of Congress

The filmmakers Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco will be awarded the first Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, which comes with a $200,000 finishing grant.

Flannery O’Connor sitting on the steps of her home in Milledgeville, Ga. in 1959.

Flannery O’Connor sitting on the steps of her home in Milledgeville, Ga. in 1959.CreditCreditFloyd Jillson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press, courtesy of the filmmakers.

By Lauren Messman
Oct. 16, 2019, 10:00 a.m. ET

A new film about the life and writings of Flannery O’Connor will receive the first Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. The award was announced on Wednesday by the Better Angels Society, the Library of Congress and the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation.

The new prize, made possible by the nonprofit Better Angels Society and the Boston-based philanthropists Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine, was created to recognize documentarians who focus on some aspect of American history. The prize includes a $200,000 grant for costs associated with postproduction, outreach and marketing, as well as a consultation with Ken Burns and his production company, Florentine Films.

“I remember for me way back with my first film, that last money was the hardest to come in and such a relief” when it did, Mr. Burns said in a phone interview. He added the money could go toward “the final prints, the final corrections, the final edits, to pay the rights to the footage or the photographs or whatever it might be.”

Before selecting a winning film with the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, six films were pared down from a total of 80 submissions and reviewed by a jury of academics and filmmakers. It was from those finalists that Mr. Burns and Dr. Hayden chose “Flannery,” a biographical documentary about the Southern Gothic writer directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco.

Dr. Bosco, a Jesuit priest and professor at Georgetown University who’s written about Ms. O’Connor (she died in 1964), said that he was initially interested in the writer’s Catholic faith, but was also struck by the way her writing tackled the same racial divides our country is confronting today.

“She’s so contemporary and, in many ways, she’s writing for a nation that always thinks it doesn’t have to deal with its latent racism and, yes, it’s still there,” he said in a phone interview.

The film grew from a collection of archival interviews with people close to Ms. O’Connor, which Dr. Bosco received in 2007. After consulting Dr. Coffman, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago and a seasoned documentary filmmaker, they started to raise money and move forward with the project in 2013, conducting archival research and interviewing writers and celebrities including Alice Walker, Tobias Wolff, Tommy Lee Jones and Conan O’Brien.

In the style of Mr. Burns’s documentaries, “Flannery” uses interviews, archival footage, photographs and voice actors (Mary Steenburgen reads as Ms. O’Connor) to tell the story of her life, writings and faith in the face of racism, sexism and her struggle with lupus. Ms. O’Connor’s iconic stories are also brought to life through motion graphics, created by a team of female animators.

Dr. Bosco and Dr. Coffman will receive their award at a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington on Thursday, a day before their film has its world premiere at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas. The doc will then go on to screen at the New Orleans Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival later this month.


Variety: Ken Burns, Library of Congress to Present Documentary Award to ‘Flannery’

Documentarian Ken Burns is partnering with the Library of Congress and two philanthropic organizations to present a new award to “Flannery,” a documentary about Flannery O’Connor.Filmmaker Elizabeth Coffman and Jesuit priest Mark Bosco will be presented the first Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film on Oct. 17 at the library. The award includes a $200,000 grant to finish the film.“‘Flannery’ is an extraordinary documentary that allows us to follow the creative process of one of our country’s greatest writers,” Burns said. “It also provides us a glimpse into her life, including her Catholic faith, her unusual sensitivity to race as a Southern white woman, and her daily struggles with illness and the prospect and reality of an early mortality. The story is
beautifully told and captures the power of her southern birth and life. We’re hopeful that a new generation of readers will re-discover the writings of Flannery O’Connor because of this film.”

Burns told Variety that finishing funds are crucial for young documentarians — a scenario he faced four decades ago when he was attempting to complete his first project, “Brooklyn Bridge,” and had to figure out how to raise $50,000.

“I looked about 12 at the time,” he recalled. “One of things I did was adopt a very low-cost lifestyle in New Hampshire, where I live to this day.”

A total of 80 films were submitted for consideration earlier this year. Ten movies were then reviewed by an internal committee consisting of filmmakers from Florentine Films and staff from the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center. The six finalists were reviewed by a jury of experts and the winner was selected by the Librarian of Congress and Carla Hayden, in consultation with Burns.

Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine provided the funding to the Better Angels Society to endow this award through the Crimson
Lion/Lavine Family Foundation.

“We believe that history helps all of us better understand who we are as a people and how our culture is enriched by diverse voices,” they said. “Flannery O’Connor was an artist of remarkable talent and originality, but she also defied simple categorization given her southern upbringing, her strong Catholic faith, and her commitment to a sense of place and

The Better Angels Society has supplemented the Lavines’ award by providing additional prizes to finalists, with $50,000 to “Mae West: Dirty Blonde,” directed by Sally Rosenthal, and $25,000 grants to “The Adventures of Sally Bellow,”
directed by Assaf Galay; “The First Angry Man,” directed by Jason Cohn; “Mr Soul,” directed by Melissa Haizlip; and “9 to 5: The Story of a Movement,” directed by Julia Reichert.

Burns has won 16 Emmy Awards. He’s been nominated for Oscars for “Brooklyn Bridge” and “The Statue of Liberty.” His eight-part “Country Music” series aired last month and he’s working on projects on Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, the Holocaust, President Lyndon Johnson and the American buffalo.

Hollywood Reporter: Library of Congress, Ken Burns Unveil Inaugural Documentary Prize

The award goes to Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, the filmmakers behind ‘Flannery,’ about the late, great writer Flannery O’Connor.

The filmmakers behind an upcoming documentary about famed Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor have been awarded the inaugural Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, it was announced Wednesday.

Flannery, directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, explores the life of the late, Georgia-born O’Connor, whose provocative fiction about Southern prophets, girls with wooden legs and an assemblage of fantastic characters has inspired artists, musicians and writers around the world.

Mary Steenburgen provides the voice of O’Connor. Watch a trailer for the film here.

The winner was selected by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in consultation with Burns, who in a statement called the feature-length Flannery “an extraordinary documentary that allows us to follow the creative process of one of our country’s greatest writers.”

“It also provides us a glimpse into her life, including her Catholic faith, her unusual sensitivity to race as a Southern white woman and her daily struggles with illness and the prospect and reality of an early mortality. The story is beautifully told and captures the power of her Southern birth and life. We’re hopeful that a new generation of readers will rediscover the writings of Flannery O’Connor because of this film.”

O’Connor’s notable works include Wise Blood, published in 1952, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960).

The Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize was unveiled in March to recognize a documentary filmmaker who “uses original research and compelling narrative to tell stories that touch on some aspect of American history.”

The award, which comes with a $200,000 finishing grant, will be presented to Coffman and Bosco at a Library of Congress gala Thursday night.

Eighty films were submitted for consideration; 10 were then reviewed by a committee consisting of filmmakers from Burns’ Florentine Films and staff from the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, the Library of Congress’ moving image and recorded sound preservation facility.

Six finalists were then reviewed by a jury consisting of Edward Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright professor of the humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond; Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton professor of American studies at Columbia University and president of the Teagle Foundation; Rachel Dretzin, documentary producer, director, writer and co-founder of Ark Media; and Dawn Porter, a documentarian and founder of Trilogy Films.

Philanthropists Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine provided the funding to the nonprofit Better Angels Society to endow the award through the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation.

Coffman, an associate professor of film and digital media at Loyola University in Chicago, earlier co-wrote, co-directed, co-edited and co-produced Veins in the Gulf (2011), a documentary about how climate change has threatened coastlines around the Gulf of Mexico.

Bosco is a Jesuit priest and vp for mission and ministry at Georgetown University.

The Better Angels Society supplemented the Lavines’ award by providing additional prizes of $50,000 to Mae West: Dirty Blonde, directed by Sally Rosenthal, and four $25,000 grants to The Adventures of Saul Bellow, directed by Asaf Galay; The First Angry Man, directed by Jason Cohn; Mr. Soul!, directed by Melissa Haizlip; and 9 to 5: The Story of a Movement, directed by Julia Reichert.

In July, the society announced the six winners of The Next Generation Angels Awards, recognizing middle- and high-school students for excellence in historical filmmaking.

Inside Higher Ed: Documentary to Showcase Education in Prison

By Madeline St. Amour

September 16, 2019
The Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference Friday in Washington hosted a panel discussion and preview of a new PBS documentary series that follows incarcerated people who are pursuing college degrees.

The four-part series, “College Behind Bars,” was executive produced by Ken Burns and directed by Lynn Novick. It will air Nov. 25 and 26.

It follows a dozen incarcerated men and women over four years as they participate in the Bard Prison Initiative, considered one of the most rigorous prison education programs in the country.

Burns moderated a conversation following the preview among Congressman Bobby L. Rush; Novick; Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative; DeAnna Hoskins, president of advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA; and Wesley Caines, an alum of the initiative and chief of staff at the Bronx Defenders.

The conversation ranged from how the film was made, to current criminal justice reform efforts like the REAL Act, to broader issues like prison privatization and forgiveness.

“As a society, if we’re going to choose to remove certain people and place them in cages, we really need to ask ourselves how do we want them to exit those cages?” Caines said.

Statement from the The Better Angels Society on the Passing of Cokie Roberts

The Better Angels Society joins Americans all across the country in mourning the loss of Cokie Roberts, who was a friend and an enthusiastic supporter of our work, as well as a member of the newly-established Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film Honorary Committee.

Her passion for American history, her lifelong leadership in encouraging civic discourse, and her commitment to the truth will continue to inspire us.
We will miss her, and we will remember her, always.
Amy Berg, President
The Better Angels Society

Country Music Premieres September 15th!

Country Music – A Film by Ken Burns (Eight Episodes)

Premieres:  September 15 – 18, 2019 Episodes 101-104 @ 8pm ET/PT, repeated @ 10pm ET/PT

September 22 – 25, 2019 Episodes 105-108 @ 8pm ET/PT, repeated @ 10pm ET/PT, except 107 @ 10:30pm ET/PT on September 24
Additional plays may include weekend marathons on the weekends of September 20 & 21 and 27 & 28.

Country Music Streaming Plans:

The film will be available for streaming across PBS digital platforms (web, mobile and OTT), including exclusive streaming opportunities for PBS Passport members.

  • All audience members (FVOD – Free Video On Demand) can stream episodes 1-4 starting on the premiere night, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019.
  • All audience members (FVOD) can binge episodes 5-8 starting on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019
  • PBS Passport members (MVOD – Membership Video On Demand) can stream all 8 episodes starting on the premiere night, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019.
  • Each episode will be available for FVOD streaming for 21 days (3 weeks) after its broadcast, then will roll into Passport (MVOD) through Friday, February 28, 2020.


Woman’s Day: Ken Burns’ New Documentary Is A Deep Dive Into the Fascinating History of Country Music

August 9, 2019

Have you ever wondered about the origin of your favorite genre?

Burns painstakingly examines the evolution of country music through the work of artists like the Carter Family and Hank Williams. “At the heart of every great country music song is a story,” he says. “As the songwriter Harlan Howard said, ‘It’s three chords and the truth.’”

Today - Season 68

Country artist Rhiannon Giddens also appears in Ken Burns’ new documentary, out Sept. 15


The documentary also explores the origin of those classic country music sounds so familiar to us today. The genre takes inspiration from other cultures, borrowing sounds from Irish, Scottish, and African music. Musician Rhiannon Giddens, who is interviewed in the film, tells Woman’s Day: “It’s not as easy as saying it’s the European fiddle meets the African banjo. That’s true up until a point, but it’s actually where these people interacted with each other to create this new American idiom that has heavy elements of everything in it.”

Another major focus of the film: the women who gave country their own brand of emotional resonance, like Patsy Cline, with her achingly lovely voice,
and the beloved icon Dolly Parton. “Whether it’s the sisterhood that runs across generations or the topics the songs cover, women and their stories have always been an essential part of country music,” says Burns.

The film also reminds us of country’s unique ability to bring people together, whether at early barn dances or the down-home Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. “People connect through music faster than any other thing,” Giddens shared. “Somebody hums a tune, the other person hums a tune, and you’re in.”

Though the documentary doesn’t premiere until September 15, the soundtrack — which showcases music from artists highlighted in the film, including Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Willie Nelson — hits stores Friday, Aug. 30. With more than 80 songs written and performed by America’s favorite country legends, the five-disc boxset is a great way to prep for the long-awaited film.

Ken Burns’ Documentary, ‘Country Music,’ Will Tug At Your Heartstrings
by Woman’s Day US