Dostoevsky Behind Bars, a Wisconsin's Own selection at the Wisconsin Film Festival is that rare film that informs through osmosis. Screening Saturday, April 5 (UW Elvehjem Building, 3:45 p.m.), it does not preach, it does not judge, nor does it pretend to be anything more than it is: a marvelous and very assured documentary about university graduate students who volunteer to discuss literature and writing with inmates at the Oakhill Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in Oregon, Wis.
As hinted at in the film's trailer, not only do you come away beginning to know the inmates, their prison lives and their hopes beyond, but you also feel as if you have stepped into some private and magical moments of shared discovery.
Awarded a "Golden Badger" by the Wisconsin Film Festival, the documentary was produced, directed and edited by Marc Kornblatt, all for about $9,000, most of which was covered by foundations grants. William Roach was the cinematographer; by day, he is a contract videographer for ESPN, and his footage is stunning and essential.
Kornblatt, a fourth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary, is no rookie, either. Through his production company Refugee Films, he has directed a number of works, including Old Country Lullaby, Because It's Small, While It Lasts and Street Pulse, which was shown at the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival.
Kornblatt says Dostoevsky Behind Bars was inspired by his own volunteer work at the prison.
Isthmus: Ultimately, what do you think the film is about?
Kornblatt: It's about more than simply "men in prison." It's a story of people, about where we're all at now in our lives. 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.
We've all had our tough experiences, as the men in the film say. It's about what choices you make and sometimes they're not good choices. But 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.
I'm not saying anything I've shown is going to reclaim a life and set these men on the right path. But there were moments with these inmates in the film, despite some of the horrible things they have done in their lives. There were moments when we were talking about great literature that were truly filled with grace.
Without being pedantic, the film makes a strong case for the transcendent power of literature and the humanities.
I think the film also says that there is beautiful stuff in the world, and while people do horrible things, and there are people who should stay in prison who need to be medicated, most of us need to be educated and elevated.
There are many men in prison who can be elevated. It's possible that something that they got out of a class may have softened them, for some moment in their life at a crucial time, and maybe they won't make another stupid choice. Maybe at these crucial points in life that we read about in literature and then see in our own lives -- maybe, maybe it gives us some kind of perspective that will help us make better choices.