What was meant to be a rather perfunctory talking-head interview piece turned into something more soulful when director Charles Frank met his subject. Envisioning a policy style piece with charts and statistics that described the epidemic of incarceration in the United States, Frank was unexpectedly taken by the heartbreaking emotion Clint Smith, a creative writing teacher, was able to relate when discussing the emotional lives of the inmates he interacts with. Smith’s zeal in turn ignited a “burning passion” in the director for the issue, and a commensurate desire in the film team to elevate the artistry of the profile to that of Smith’s words.
Smith’s process in poetry is self-described as one of “radical empathy”, and that certainly comes across. There is naturally a precision to his words that befits a professional wordsmith, an acuity in describing the anger or machismo that landed these men into prison, and which also explores the loneliness, regret, and occasional hopelessness that has come in the aftermath. He is also a gifted storyteller — the opening anecdote of the film establishing Smith’s own journey, the one he assumes his audiences will still need to make, from a prejudicial attitude towards these convicts to one of empathy. Through it all, Frank’s camera is tight on Smith, physical intimacy combining with the emotional.
The most notable filmic decision both in the storytelling and in the shooting was the inclusion of Smith’s own poem. These sequences, shot in 16mm, infuse his words with a tangible nostalgia. It is a simple trick, but a good decision, and a strong and potentially fraught execution. Frank had never shot on 16mm before, and thus the suggestion from the DP Jeff Melanson required a leap of faith from Frank to accept. It is the missing piece though, the logical culmination of Smith’s thesis that the power of words, of art, can uplift the writer and endear them to the listener. The 16mm sequences depicting flashback sequences between a father and son, heartrendingly depict an inmate’s most painful loss, and through it, becomes the most effective humanizer.