By Caryn James | James on Screens July 27, 2011 at 4:00AM
Serving Life plays like the flip side of the brutal prison drama Oz. This narrowly focused yet affecting documentary, set in a hospice in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, follows prisoners who volunteer to help other prisoners at the end of their lives.
Narrated and executive produced by Forest Whitaker, it is the first doc to have its premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network’s Doc Club. And true to the uplifting spirit of OWN, the volunteers it follows are once-brutal criminals – murderers, armed robbers, most of them sentenced to life without parole – who regret their pasts and find a sense of redemption in their hospice work.
Whitaker’s voiceover is sparing, but he begins with a statistic most of us would never have thought about: 85 per cent of the Angola prisoners will die there. (The hospice program was started in 1997, the year before The Farm, a more searing film about life in Angola, was released.)
As we follow four volunteers through their training and into their work with the terminally ill, the emphasis is not on death but on the volunteers’ renewed sense of life. They talk to the camera, each bluntly taking responsibility for his past. Most haven’t seen their families in years, and sadly say it’s their own fault. Some reconnect with those families after their hospice experience. They are especially touched – it is the film’s most moving sequence for viewers too – by a wizened prisoner who fades before our eyes, as even as he does, tells his imprisoned older brother he has to change.
The unobtrusive cameras capture some harsh moments. We hear a death rattle. We see a dying child molester, a belligerent personality whose surgery for a brain tumor has left him mentally unable to understand his own disease and probably at that point incapable of regret. Whatever the film intended, he’s the one person I could never muster a shred of sympathy for. That’s not necessarily a bad response, because this selective view of prison life does leave you wondering what else is happening at Angola.
But that’s outside the scope of the documentary, which doesn’t pretend to be about prison in general. Instead, it makes a convincing case that kindness and humanity can flourish in the least likely places.
Serving Life premieres Thursday, July 28th. Here’s’ the trailer, which oddly reveals the most difficult of the death scenes and much less of the film’s compassionate spirit.