In a new documentary, UVA students and residents of a juvenile correctional facility connect through Russian literature

In a new documentary, UVA students and residents of a juvenile correctional facility connect through Russian literature

When the great classics of world literature were first being written, they were not meant for students or academics decades or centuries in the future. First and foremost, they were meant to foster a relationship between reader and writer. For Andrew Kaufman, who teaches Russian literature at the University of Virginia, that connection came to life during a prison workshop he taught in 2009, on Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

The story, about the thoughts and emotions that overcome a man who is suddenly conscious of his imminent death, is one of the first stories taught in Russian literature classes. New students are encouraged to dissect Tolstoy’s meditations on sin, the valuing of physical and social pursuits over spiritual ones, and other Russian writers who underwent similar deathbed conversions, such as Nikolai Gogol.

What Kaufman discovered in the workshop was a new dimension to the work, sparked when he shed his “professorial persona” and simply asked the inmates, “What did reading this story mean to you?”

“I had to come to this jail…to see what I did. But I learned something from this story I can use when I get out,” Kaufman recalls one participant telling him. “It’s too late for Ivan,” another said, “but it’s not too late for us.”

In an email, Kaufman observed that “Ivan Ilyich, a careerist judge living in 1880’s Russia, couldn’t have been more removed socially, economically, and culturally from the world inhabited by the inmates at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center. Yet his story struck a powerful chord in these men, inspiring them to open up to a complete stranger about bad decisions they’ve made, people they’ve hurt, and opportunities they’ve squandered, or perhaps never had to begin with. It…encouraged others to see their world anew, to glimpse fresh possibilities for their future.”

“I came away from that experience realizing and understanding the story in a new way for myself,” says Kaufman. “I had written about it, I had studied it many times, but for me as a teacher, teaching in this unfamiliar context, it made it come alive in a whole new way.” It planted the seed for Books Behind Bars, the program he would found the following year. 

No-comfort zone

The idea behind Books Behind Bars was to bring students enrolled at the University of Virginia to the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center to discuss the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and other greats of Russian literature with incarcerated people of the same age group.

“[I thought], if going into an unfamiliar environment and leading a discussion about a story that I thought I knew can have that kind of an illuminating effect on me,” says Kaufman, “what would happen if I were to create a class in which I’d put my students into a similar environment…and then have discussion about literature outside of their comfort zone? What learning might take place for them?”

In 2016, Kaufman’s Books Behind Bars class was documented by Charlottesville-based filmmaker Chris Farina for Seats at the Table, which screens at the Virginia Film Festival on Sunday at Newcomb Hall Theatre.

In the film, metaphorical barriers between people are dismantled, even as physical ones remain. Both student and resident come to the table ready to discuss the same written work with radically different life experiences, but with a shared desire to understand each other. The literature they read together speaks to universal fears and emotions that are hardcoded into us as human beings; Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does a Man Need? challenges our need to acquire, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Matryona’s House asks how much a person can give before it becomes too much. And in analyzing it together, the walls that separate one person’s experience from another’s begin to soften, allowing student, resident, and even author to contribute to a free exchange of ideas at a level that would have previously been difficult to imagine.

One resident called the class “the one time I don’t feel locked up.” Photo: Sanjay Suchak/UVA

Perceived notions

One of the most striking things about Farina’s documentary is the film’s refreshing tone of good faith. The viewer is dropped almost immediately into the action of UVA students entering Beaumont (which closed in 2017) for the first time, not knowing what to expect.

Maybe a university student wants to alter his perception of what makes a person “criminal.” Perhaps a resident has a specific notion of what a university course is or what sort of person thrives in it. And neither participant has much familiarity, lived or otherwise, with the time or place where these works were written. But as the film progresses, the viewer witnesses genuine emotional exchanges between three very different people—UVA student, correctional facility resident, and 19th-century Russian author.

“Part of it is bringing people together at that age,” says Farina, “and part of it is the stereotypes they have going in. They dissolve within a couple weeks, and they really open up. And particularly for the residents, it’s their one time of the week when they have a little sense of safety, but also a little sense that they can be themselves and not have to put up their guard. It means a lot to them. One [resident] literally said, ‘That’s the one time I don’t feel locked up. I can be myself.’”

Farina’s style of filmmaking allows the story to unfold with minimal prompting, but it is anything but passive. It took energy, focus, and determination to create the space where the man with the camera at the end of the table could be trusted with this level of vulnerability. Farina attended the program for two years before recording a single image, then made sure that trust did not dissipate once production began.

“I conducted a bunch of early interviews with the residents to get them to be a little more comfortable with me,” says Farina. “That relationship between me and them, I knew was going to be crucial, and so I wanted them to understand that I wasn’t sitting there with an agenda. I was sitting there, asking them the questions, and leaving it up to them as to what they want to talk about.”

“Chris did a great job with that,” says Kaufman. “Not every filmmaker would have been able to get the residents to open up like he did.”

The students who came into the class knew they were going to be filmed. But Kaufman says, “I told them, we’re not there to please the filmmaker. We’re here to do our work, and the cameras are just other students in the class.”

He adds, “There was a kind of heightened level of urgency when the cameras were there. It didn’t change anything, but I think it gave everyone, even at a subconscious level, the sense that what we’re doing is important.”

Gene Rhodes, director of photography, with producer and director Chris Farina. Photo courtesy Rosalia Films

Story sharing

Farina’s approach to filmmaking is to let the subject tell his own story as much as possible, a quality that is also seen in his earlier work. West Main Street, also screening at VAFF (Saturday at Vinegar Hill Theatre), captures residents of the Charlottesville neighborhood in the late 1980s and ’90s just as they are, tying them to their location through shared memories and interwoven archival footage.

Farina’s involvement with Books Behind Bars came on the heels of another project relating to experimental education: World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements, a documentary he made in 2010 about Virginia educator John Hunter, who developed a game that allowed young students to address global conflict. Hunter’s game puts children in roles of global consequence-—prime minister, head of the United Nations, trade association leaders, and the like—and charges them with resolving conflicts in their own interest. In the process, they discover that collaboration is the key to success.

Despite their obvious differences, the connection between the World Peace Game and Books Behind Bars is also evident: Both programs create clear parameters and a structure for learning, then inspire the student to go places he might never have imagined. In the real world, two strangers who notice they are both reading the same book would not necessarily begin discussing their life choices and their feelings of pride and regret. But in a trusting environment where one is allowed, even encouraged, to open up, a shared story becomes a powerful thing—a springboard for conversations that might never have occurred otherwise.

“I heard this from both students of the [World Peace] game and from Books Behind Bars, it’s the ‘most important class they ever took in their life,’” says Farina. “The reality is, I’m not sure that the university students were expecting such a level of learning from the residents…and that by itself is such an important part of education—to realize that it’s by listening to others that we can learn.”

Leveling through literature

“In 2010,” says Kaufman, “one of the UVA students was asked by one of the young residents, ‘Do you guys read these same books that we’re reading here? You read these in your UVA classes?’ And the UVA student said ‘yes.’ And you could just see the glowing pride on the face of the resident who had asked that question. And that little moment…then the UVA student in turn was also very proud and very happy to have been able to share that with the resident. That moment of connection, I’ll never forget that. Because for me, in so many ways, that’s what education is about.”

Russian literature isn’t the most obvious subject matter for young people to connect around. But Kaufman says one plus is that it’s equally foreign to both groups. “The UVA students and the residents are kind of figuring this stuff out together,” he says. “Neither group is an authority on this…and that creates a sense of…honest connection.”

Discussing a modern American author may get people talking about today’s issues, but an unfamiliar author from a distant time and place focuses the conversation on universal truths.

“It is the urgency with [what] the Russians call the accursed questions: Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live?” Kaufman says. “Russian writers, they tell great stories, but they never looked at themselves as storytellers alone.”

Ivan Ilyich is a great example,” he adds. “Tolstoy will not let you run away from that question: Why the hell are you on this earth, and what are you going to do with your short time here? He won’t let you walk away from it, no matter how much you want to. …Those are questions that students are hungry for, that residents are hungry for, and they didn’t realize that they were allowed to talk about in literature classes. But it’s very liberating for them.”

Kaufman says the opportunity to discuss life through literature is a connection that’s especially needed right now. “We do not know how to have conversations in this country with one another about anything substantive without getting at each other’s throats,” he says. “We don’t know how to talk.”

“Tolstoy will not let you run away from that question: Why the hell are you on this earth, and what are you going to do with your short time here?” –Program director Andrew Kaufman. Photo: Sanjay Suchak/UVA

Two sides

One memorable sequence in Seats at the Table juxtaposes the two groups of students in the most human of activities: a shared meal. The UVA students enjoy a restaurant’s outdoor seating while laughing, bonding, and discussing the program and anything else they please. It’s a boisterous, noisy, joyful occasion. Cut to Beaumont: enforced silence. Absolutely no talking allowed. The scene amplifies the sense of liberation felt by residents during class, where no such restrictions exist.

It’s at this moment that the viewer may notice that the film has no score, an intentional decision made by Farina to capture the music inherent in the dialogue. “I didn’t want to inject myself in it,” he says. “I wanted to get out of the way. I wanted people to feel the emotion from what they were in the midst of, and not impose, ‘Okay, here’s the emotion you need to feel right now.’”

It’s tempting to describe the ending scenes of the film, but it’s best to see them as the journey unfolds. The residents are prohibited from contacting UVA students for five years after participating, but as the program enters its ninth year, the lasting effects are still apparent. A Washington Post piece from July 5, 2018 followed Josh Pritchett, who took the course while incarcerated, then again as an enrolled student at UVA. Other success stories, like that of Douglas Avila–who appeared on television with Kaufman, describing his journey from Beaumont to studying fine arts in college thanks to the program and the lessons learned from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment–speak to the long-term impact of Books Behind Bars.

UVA graduate Kelsey Bowman, a double major in psychology and youth & social innovation who is seen in the film, says the experience made her more interested in social justice work, and influenced her decision to pursue a master’s in social work. “What I hope to do with that degree is some kind of rehabilitation programming or counseling…in a correctional setting,” she says. “This course…really pushed me towards that path.”

Maeve Curtin, a global development studies major, reflects that, “We need more people who are willing to recognize our shared humanity, and we just happen to use literature as a way of getting [to] that ultimate goal, for how we should be living our lives every day.”

There are real factors that cause people to make different decisions, arrive in different circumstances, and form different sets of beliefs. But so much of what divides us is little more than fog; the appearance of division that clears the moment you approach it. Russian literature is a field often seen as prohibitively complicated, due to the lengths of many of the works, the often impenetrable names, and the era-specific references, to name a few perceived obstacles. But what Seats at the Table shows us is that two people from different walks of life sitting across from one another can pierce fog as well as any classroom–by trusting their shared humanity.

Get lit

The syllabus for Books Behind Bars contains some of the greatest and most celebrated works in the history of Russian literature, with themes of redemption, finding
peace through suffering, and reconciling one’s physical and spiritual needs. Here are three of the works the participants read and discussed in Seats at the Table.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich
by Leo Tolstoy

As a painful illness brings death closer by the hour, Ivan Ilyich reckons with the manner in which he has lived. He struggles with why, despite a life lived according to the norms of his social class, he deserves such anguish, ultimately accepting that none of his social climbing and proper (yet unremarkable) living can help him in the face of genuine suffering and impending death. Tolstoy is best known in the West for his epic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but much of his philosophy and gift for language is captured by his short stories and novellas. Here, we see his interpretation of how one can—and indeed, must—live morally, and consider his spiritual well-being, even in his everyday behavior.

How Much Land Does A Man Need?

by Leo Tolstoy

A peasant named Pahom unknowingly tempts Satan by proclaiming, “If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” After acquiring some land and establishing a more comfortable life, Pahom becomes obsessed with the land itself, suspicious of perceived outside threats. Ultimately, the title’s question is answered in Pahom’s fate: A man only needs enough land to be buried in. Tolstoy’s parable contains an epic quality, yet is succinctly told, and can be read as a companion piece to The Death of Ivan Ilyich as two stories with very different tones but the same moral core.

Matryona’s House

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A former prisoner in a Soviet gulag—a network of forced labor camps—takes up residence on a collective farm with a woman named Matryona. She lives meagerly, even by the standards of collective farmers, and is always ready to help others and work for little or no reward. Solzhenitsyn, himself a former gulag prisoner and author of The Gulag Archipelago, depicts Matryona as one who gives of herself regardless of the ruling ideology of the current regime. She does not need to be a high-ranking church official, nor a devout communist, to live a life of service; Solzhenitsyn shows us that a person’s inherent goodness is not connected to her surroundings, status, or any other earthly considerations.

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