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Fox Valley filmmaker favored to bring home Oscar

Edgar Barens

Edgar Barens

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Updated: April 1, 2014 10:02AM



Aurora’s own Maud Powell may have won a Grammy earlier this year, but the international violinist, who died in 1920, wasn’t able to enjoy her Lifetime Achievement Award … or the local parties thrown in her honor.

The same can’t be said for Montgomery’s Edgar Barens, who, if you believe the critics, is the favorite to pick up an Oscar on Sunday night at the Academy Awards ceremony for his documentary, “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall.”

In fact, ever since word got out his 40-minute film had been nominated in the category of documentary short subject, the 53-year-old Oswego High School and Southern Illinois University alum has been in a “surreal world,” as he jets from coast to coast, granting big-time interviews and getting ready for Sunday’s Red Carpet affair, where no doubt he’ll rub elbows with some of Tinseltown’s heavy-hitters.

“If Leonardo Dicaprio walks by,” he quipped, “I’m sure the cameras will forget all about me.”

When I caught up with Barens on Tuesday, he was in Los Angeles and had just gotten off the phone with a reporter from the New York Times.

“It’s been a big week,” he acknowledged. “I can’t keep up with all the events. Logistically, it’s been hard. I’m not sure I am having fun yet.”

But Barens is “truly grateful” for this opportunity, and knows his life will change dramatically if he comes home with that prestigious gold statue this weekend.

“I’ve talked to others who have won,” he noted. “And they say you don’t have to worry about funding for future projects.”

Nothing of course is a given, but as I mentioned earlier, the critics are raving about “Prison Terminal,” which focuses on a decorated World War II veteran dying inside the prison walls at Iowa State Penitentiary, and the group of hospice volunteers, prisoners themselves, caring for him in his final days.

“Will win your heart, if not the Oscar,” declared the Washington Post.

The “one truly great film in this category,” noted Salon.com.

“Should win the Academy Award…” wrote Slant magazine.

Aurora-born Barens, who trained with Fox Valley Volunteer Hospice in Geneva to prepare for this venture, had years earlier spent two weeks inside Angola Prison in Louisiana filming its hospice program that became a “teaching tool” for other institutions, including Iowa State Penitentiary.

It was in the Iowa facility, one of America’s oldest maximum security prisons, where Barens was given an extraordinary six months of access. Both the Boston Globe and ABC described the end product as “a moving and intimate” account of how the hospice experience can profoundly touch even the lives of the incarcerated.

Barens said he wanted to stay in a cell throughout the shooting. Instead, officials let him live in the basement of a house directly across the street where the prison doctors are also housed. But every day, all day, he had total access inside its walls, where he formed a close bond with Jack and the other prisoners, “who let their guards down and learned to trust me.”

“I knew it was special as it was happening,” he said of the filming that allowed him to come home only a couple weekends.

Still, when he learned HBO had picked up the documentary (to air March 31), Barens “was blown away. To later learn it had been nominated for an Academy Award, really was a dream come true.”

After earning SIU degrees in cinema and photography, Barens has done documentary films, as well as experimental shorts, music videos and public service announcements which have been screened nationally and internationally. He lived in New York for 15 years but moved back to the Fox Valley 10 years ago where for most of the past decade his work has explored issues within the criminal justice system.

“You aren’t going to find anyone nicer,” said Scott Mouis, who became good friends with Barens 10 years ago after they met at the Aurora Turners Club.

The couple times I’ve talked to Barens, who worked at a local bank and as a used car salesman while struggling as a filmmaker, I was immediately struck by his humbleness, as well as his passion and compassion for the subject: dying with dignity.

Barens says the Oscar hoopla is bittersweet because his father Mark, an Aurora artist, passed away two years ago after falling in his home.

“I wish he were here to see all this,” he said.

Barens has a long-time partner but it’s his mother Teresa who will be his date on Sunday night when he strolls down that red carpet and into Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre for the 86th Academy Awards.

“I’m all ready. I rented a Perry Ellis tuxedo,” he said, although he’s not even sure that designer is a name people know anymore.

“But I’m happy with it.”

And we’re excited at the chance to cheer for our hometown boy on Sunday. Check out the trailer to “Prison Terminal” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYCL47ass7E; and you will quickly see why there’s so much Oscar buzz about this documentary.

And the winner is? Gold statue or not, Barens has struck gold.



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