Lisa Cohen, producer and director of OWN Documentary Club’s “Serving Life,” hopes that people who watch her first feature-length film take away the truth that there is humanity in each and every one of us.
“It’s an incredibly inspiring thing to actually witness how – no matter who someone is and no matter what society thinks of them, even if someone is considered to be the worst of the worst or a throwaway – people can surprise us,” Cohen explains. “You can surprise yourself and find good things within yourself and do good.”
“Serving Life” takes viewers inside Louisiana’s maximum security prison at Angola, where the average sentence is more than 90 years. Therefore, the prison obviously needs a working hospice program where hardened criminals care for their dying fellow inmates which, coincidentally, allows them to embark on a journey that may end in personal rehabilitation.
“It was almost shocking how these men could find it in themselves to take care of people who were really sick and dying – in the worst conditions – and be there for them and help them,” Cohen adds. “You go on this journey with these new recruits who don’t know whether they can do it or not and witness their humanity yourself and see this thing that is common in everyone.”
Cohen’s career includes several years as a network news producer, during which time she developed a long-standing relationship with the prison featured in “Serving Life.” In 1996, she shared the final month of life with one of Angola’s dying inmates, which resulted in an hour-long special for ABC News’s “Primetime Live.”
Therefore, having worked long and hard to earn the trust of the prison’s staff, Cohen was able to convince them to allow her to essentially move in and follow Angola’s hospice program over the course of a 2-year period. However, that did not mean that it was easy for Cohen and her film crew to get the inmates to open up to them.
“There was a lot of building trust and time on the ground being with them,” explains Cohen, referencing cinéma vérité. “Like anything, when you’re a fly on the wall and around all of the time, people get used to you. I also think it was very difficult for some of the patients to let us be there. There were a lot of very sensitive conversations about whether or not something could be seen on camera.”
Cohen acknowledges that the experience was often emotionally difficult – especially knowing that most of the inmates will never again see the outside world. However, at the same time, she notes that it also a fascinating experience as it proved to her that the individuals who find themselves confined between prison walls are human beings just like the rest of us.
“There were tears but there would also be laughs,” says Cohen, noting that such is simply a fact of life. A particularly special moment occurred when Cohen’s co-producer Forest Whitaker, who also serves as the film’s narrator, visited the prison. “It was a huge thrill for the inmates. He knew their names and their stories so that was just mind-boggling to them.”
In addition to “Serving Life,” Cohen has another documentary set to debut in October on HBO. Titled “The Education of Dee Dee Ricks,” the project tells the story of a breast cancer survivor who, knowing firsthand the pain, trauma and daily stress a patient endures, is helping others navigate their way through that maze.
“I gravitate toward stories of ordinary people who end up having tough things that they have to face and how they face them,” Cohen says.
“Serving Life” (NR – 90 minutes) airs Thursday, July 28 exclusively on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
Listen to Joseph J. Airdo’s “Movie Maverick” radio segment, every Friday morning at 9:30 a.m. during “The Daily Blender with Jeffry O’Brien” on KBSZ – NBC 1260 AM and 96.1 FM.