Picks of the Week is Women and Hollywood‘s newest resource. W&H writers are often asked for recommendations, so each week they’ll spotlight the women-driven and women-made projects—movies, series, VOD releases and more—that they’re most excited about. (Sign up for the Women and Hollywood newsletter at womenandhollywood.com to get each week’s picks delivered to your inbox!)
Movie of the Week: Hala
Written and Directed by Minhal Baig
From writer-director Minhal Baig, Hala marks one of the first acquisitions of Apple TV+.
The Sundance pic tells the story of Hala, played by the incredibly talented Geraldine Viswanathan. She’s a hijab-wearing young woman struggling with her strict parents’ expectations in a world of opportunity. She’s not perfect, refreshingly so. Her parents’ relationship is the one thing she can count on—and when that falls apart, she falls apart. She also challenges her religion and its hold on girls and their sexuality.
Hala is a coming-of-age story centering on girls we don’t usually see on-screen—and that in itself is reason for celebration. (Melissa Silverstein)
Hala opens November 22. It will be available on Apple TV+ beginning December 6.
Docuseries of the Week: “College Behind Bars”
Directed by Lynn Novick
Lynn Novick’s four-part documentary film series kicks off with one of its characters making an observation about life as an inmate: “I’ve been incarcerated for 13 years, and from my experience, I can tell you prison is here to punish us. It’s here to warehouse us. But it’s not about rehabilitating—it’s not about creating productive beings. It just isn’t.”
Novick’s project turns the camera on a small group of incarcerated men and women pursuing their college degrees in the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a privately funded prison education program in the U.S. “The film reveals the transformative power of higher education and puts a human face on America’s criminal justice crisis,” she told us. “It raises questions we urgently need to address: What is prison for? Who has access to educational opportunity? Who among us is capable of academic excellence? How can we have justice without redemption?”
We see the students/prisoners discussing Moby Dick, studying Chinese and exploring different fields of study with passion and enthusiasm—composing draft after draft in pursuit of excellence, despite difficult conditions. Most study and write essays in the middle of the night, when everyone else is sleeping and the prison is quiet. As one professor acknowledges, she can engage with the students she teaches behind bars in a much different way than the ones she teaches on a conventional college campus; the dialogue is more sophisticated with the incarcerated pupils, who tend to have more life experience to draw from, as well as maturity.
We witness these men and women blossoming. Their commitment to learning, and to changing their lives, is clear. But not everyone’s happy about the fact that they get the chance to earn a degree behind bars. We hear politicians, and even one of the students’ mothers, decrying how unjust it is to be “rewarded” for committing a crime by receiving a free education that others struggle to afford, if they have any chance of paying for it at all. Some minds may be changed if we can, as Novick says, engage in a “civil, fact-based conversation about education and justice.”
“Here are some data points we share in the film: America spends an astonishing $80 billion on incarceration annually,” Novick explained. “Every year, more than 600,000 men and women are released from prison, and within three years, nearly half are back behind bars. Higher education, as one of the students says in the film, ‘creates civic beings.’ It promotes human dignity, enhances public safety, and dramatically reduces recidivism. In the past 20 years, more than 500 BPI alumni have been released from prison, and fewer than four percent have gone back. But only a tiny fraction of the more than two million incarcerated men and women currently have access to college programs.”
“College Behind Bars” isn’t just an important, educational call to arms. The doc is also a moving portrait of individuals determined to defy the odds and build a better future for themselves. (Laura Berger)
“College Behind Bars” premieres November 25 on PBS.