In a high-security Kentucky prison, a storm is brewing. It’s not a violent one, but an emotional one as some of the well-behaved prisoners put on a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Hank Rogerson’s documentary “Shakespeare Behind Bars” follows the group of imprisoned actors as they explore their own repressed emotions to depict the story of island imprisonment. Rogerson has crafted an emotionally satisfying exploration of the creative process through people who, before the program started, weren’t comfortable with expressing themselves at all.
The documentary introduces the characters and gets to know them as people while interludes throughout the film show each man describing his crime. This decision is crucial to the film’s success. If all the crimes had been disclosed at the beginning, it would have been difficult to see the prisoners as real people; if the crimes were never revealed, it would have cheaply romanticized the story. As their instructor points out, these men committed heinous crimes, but they still deserve a chance at education and self _expression.
One prisoner adeptly observes that he thought prisoners would be good actors because they spent their lives lying, but now sees that it’s more difficult than that because acting is about telling the truth. A play like “The Tempest, “which deals with themes of forgiveness and parent-child relationships, provides an emotional and psychological outlet for the prisoners to explore repressed feelings. Its ability to affect men who don’t have strong backgrounds in English studies proves Shakespeare’s timelessness for anyone who’s willing to study his work.
While the character study in the documentary is flawless, there’s still room for improvement that could be made in editing. Some of the transitional establishing shots, most notably a time-lapse shot of clouds moving over a barbed-wire fenced, come off as forced and pretentious in a film that’s all about honesty. These, however, can easily be removed before the proper release of the film, and even if they aren’t, nothing can dull the documentary’s emotional power.