DIFF 2011 Review: ZERO PERCENT
This review was written by our friend, Reel Distraction.
Director: Tim Skousen
Founded in 2000, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison provides the opportunity for inmates at New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility to receive a college education from an accredited university. The relatively young program boasts an impressive success rate: of the 41 men who graduated through Hudson Link and then left Sing Sing, none have returned to prison. By way of comparison, the national recidivism rate is a depressing sixty percent.
ZERO PERCENT takes a broad look at several Hudson Link students, educators, and alumni, but is at its best when it hones in on the inmates themselves. The handful of men featured in the film defy easy characterization. All are murderers, and most appear genuinely remorseful about their crimes. The film’s central message is one of second chances, and the viewer is left with little doubt that these particular men, most of whom have spent the last 15 to 20 years in prison, would be of little threat to society if they were released today.
Where ZERO PERCENT falters is its failure to fully investigate the actual transformative agent at work in these men’s lives. Given the film’s title and focus on the Hudson Link program, the filmmakers presumably attribute the change to the program and the education the men receive through it. But we’re never shown what the prisoners were like prior to entering the program. One gets the sense that, by being difficult to get in to (there’s a two to three year waiting list) and costly to remain in (inmates are required to pay what amounts to 75% of their wages per semester as tuition), the program is self-selecting and necessarily consists only of men who have already decided to make a change in their lives.
Indeed, although the film continually praises the success of the Hudson Link program, little time is spent exploring the differences (if any) between it and similar programs elsewhere in the country. Other equally interesting questions are touched on but never fully addressed. How do the prisoners in the program avoid the gangs and violence that they describe as being so common at Sing Sing? How does Hudson Link’s work impact the Sing Sing community as a whole? How does Hudson Link’s recidivism rate compare to the rate of similar programs around the country, and if it is significantly better, what accounts for the difference? What do the guards and prison officials think about the program? Few documentarians are able to gain access to Sing Sing, and the film would have been better served if it had remained within the walls of the prison and dropped several other less-interesting narrative threads, including those about Hudson Link’s corporate history, its fundraising efforts, and the life of one particular Hudson Link alumni who now teaches a conflict-resolution high-school class.
Ultimately, as much as ZERO PERCENT thinks it is about the transformative power of education, the film is more about the power of human connections and second chances. The featured inmates and alumni seem to flourish, not because they can quote Plato and Langston Hughes, but because they were told that they had worth as a person. Though frustrating for its omissions, ZERO PERCENT is a well-made documentary that raises a number of interesting questions and admirably highlights a worthwhile organization.