Lynn Novick is one of the most renowned and respected documentary filmmakers and storytellers in America, recipient of Emmy, Peabody and Alfred I. duPont Columbia Awards. For more than 30 years she has been directing and producing landmark documentary films for PBS about American life and culture, history, politics, sports, art, architecture, literature, and music. In collaboration with Ken Burns, she has created more than 80 hours of acclaimed programming — The Vietnam War, Prohibition, Frank Lloyd Wright, The War, Jazz, Baseball, and The Tenth Inning — films which have received 19 Emmy nominations.
Novick’s most recent production, College Behind Bars – her debut as a solo director – explores the inspiring and transformational journeys of a dozen incarcerated men and women doing time for serious crimes, as they struggle to earn degrees in one of the most rigorous and effective prison education programs in the country, the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). The immersive series, produced by Sarah Botstein and executive produced by Burns, was distilled from nearly 400 hours of cinema-verite footage shot over four years in medium and maximum security prisons. The story unfolds through the voices and lived experiences of incarcerated men and women, without voice-over narration, and for Novick marks a new path from the historical films for which she and Burns are known.
College Behind Bars premiered at the New York Film Festival, aired on PBS in 2019, received two Emmy nominations, and asks urgently contemporary and timeless questions – What is prison for? Who in America has access to educational opportunity? As the incarcerated students master the liberal arts, reimagine themselves, come to terms with their pasts, and become fully engaged citizens, they shatter stereotypes about incarcerated people and their intellectual and moral capacities. “What college does, it helps us learn about the nation,” says BPI student Rodney Spivey-Jones. “It helps us become civic beings. It helps us understand that we have an interest in our community, that our community is a part of us and we are a part of it.” “What you see in … these heartbreaking, inspiring stories,” says Jamil Smith in Rolling Stone, “ is a testament to the power of education, and why it remains such a dangerous and underrated weapon against a racially and economically unjust status quo in this nation.” Similarly, the Washington Post noted that those who oppose prison education programs are “perhaps aggravated at the sight of these men overachieving and the personal freedom that knowledge bestows.” The Education Writers of America honored the series for Best Visual Storytelling: “The commitment and effort the filmmakers took to tell the stories of [men and women] trying to better their lives by obtaining a college degree – and what their stories say about our criminal justice system – is nothing short of incredible….The film does honor to its subjects and the debate over the purpose of education and rehabilitation.”
Novick’s next solo directing project is an 8-part series on the history of crime and punishment in America, executive produced by Burns. She is currently collaborating with Burns, Botstein and the writer Geoffrey C. Ward on a three-part biography of Ernest Hemingway airing on PBS in April 2021; a six-hour examination of America’s response to the Holocaust; and a series on the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Potential future projects include a series on the history of Soviet spying in America and a series about the public and private lives of remarkable American women. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Yale with honors in American Studies and lives in New York City.