While it’s neither a wallow in sensational cellblock horrors nor a Scared Straight-style sock in the gut, A Bend in the River—a documentary shot in 2006 at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, making its public premiere 7 p.m. tonight at the Belcourt—offers quiet, solemn and persuasive evidence that prison is the last place on earth anyone wants to end up. And for those whose paths brought them to Riverbend—like the subjects of Andy van Roon and Jeffry Gordon’s film—at least there’s Project: New Beginning, a program that leads inmates through a curriculum of classes in finance, personal responsibility and dealing with authority figures in hopes of curbing recidivism rates on the outside. The curriculum was created in 1997 by Larry Simpson, a former Riverbend inmate who has been out now for six years, and so far the program boasts an 87-percent non-recidivism rate for its graduates. It was Van Roon, founder of the local film-industry organization FilmNashville, who took the idea of doing a film on Project: New Beginning to the organization’s board. “I just had to say yes,” says Gordon, who has filled a variety of crew positions on local productions.
In the beginning, Jeffrey Gordon says, getting the inmates’ trust was difficult. “How do you define a situation where you spend 24 hours a day, 365 days a year living with the same 230 guys in the same pod?” Gordon says. “People all the time are angling to get something over on you.” But the filmmakers’ long-term commitment to the project won the participants over. When Gordon’s wife Deborah signed on as producer, she too became so engrossed in the project that she elected to spend the couple’s second anniversary meeting the film’s subjects.In well-spoken but at times cautious interviews—most elide the crime that got them behind bars, and the movie doesn’t ask—the program’s participants describe childhood brushes with drugs and other fateful missteps. Almost to a man, they can trace their jail time back to one bad decision that slammed the door shut on their future. But with the program’s help, some of the subjects have found their voices as rappers, artists and musicians along with new peace. Their testimony is lucid and frank. One sequence, in which an inmate known as Booker lays out a razor-sharp rap explaining how any street-corner Superfly already has the skills to run his own business, should be required viewing in any MBA program. “I feel charged up every time I visit those guys,” Gordon says. “Not because, yippee, I get to leave, but because I get so filled with hope.” He concedes that the movie is mostly talking heads, but so what: “I find what they’re saying really compelling.” The Belcourt screening is a benefit for Project: New Beginning (projectnewbeginning.net) and its efforts to get non-profit standing. Among the night’s panelists are Larry Simpson, PNB director of operations Denise Morris-Pigg, and two of the film’s subjects, Farid and Reggie Williams. But the guest who may have the most reason to celebrate is another New Beginning participant, Eric Pigg. As of yesterday, June 25, he became Project New Beginning’s newest graduate to leave Riverbend.