‘A new life’ documents man’s best friend

Nov. 21, 2011 12:11 pm

Perry Wideman is one of six men who feed, exercise and care for four dogs from the Forsyth Humane Society, training the dogs for adoption. But these men are not Humane Society volunteers. They are prison inmates.

Wideman is a habitual felon and inmate in the Forsyth Correctional Center, convicted for larceny, according  to the N.C. Department of Correction. The Forsyth branch of the Humane Society, a nationwide animal protection organization, is an animal shelter and community education facility that houses neglected pets, preparing them for adoption.

Wideman’s relationship with Lindy, a dog from the Forsyth Humane Society, is the focus of a documentary called “A New Life.”

On Nov. 20,  the Carrboro Film Festival will show “A New Life,” among others from 1-7 p.m. in the Carrboro Century Center. The festival showcases short films made by filmmakers from across North Carolina, according to the festival’s website.

“Our festival wants to include all different types of films by all different types of people,” Jackie Helvey, graphic designer and co-founder of the festival, said. “These are all great movies, or movies that have a place in this festival.”

Six years ago, Helvey shared an office with Nic Beery, a producer of short films, and realized that local filmmakers such as Beery didn’t have an opportunity to share their work, she said. With the support of the Town of Carrboro arts committee and funding from its Board of Aldermen, she and Beery cofounded the Carrboro Film Festival in 2006.

“A New Life,” by Adrienne Ostberg, a UNC-CH alumna and MFA student at UNC-G, describes the experiences of inmates in Winston-Salem’s Forsyth Correctional Center who train and socialize dogs from the Humane Society through a nationwide program called “A New Leash on Life.”

Helvey said she’s excited for the community to see this film. “It shows another side of people,” she added. “It’s a fabulous way to rehabilitate people who may have lost touch with humanity.”

Through the “A New Leash on Life” program at Forsyth Correctional Center, a team of minimum security inmates trains the dogs from the Forsyth Humane Society and prepares them for adoption. The team has four primary trainers and two assistant trainers. Each primary trainer is paired with a dog, which he is responsible for feeding, exercising and training.

The two-month partnership rehabilitates dogs so that they’re ready for adoption, and the men receive unconditional love from an animal in return, according to the site for “A New Leash On Life.”

“You take these gentlemen, who have these tough attitudes and hard backgrounds, and you put them with one of these dogs, and it really changes them as a person,” Renae Farmer, correctional case manager at Forsyth Correctional Center and program coordinator for the Forsyth branch of “A New Leash on Life,” said.

The men stay in the popular program as long as they do a good job, she added. After a lengthy process, Farmer selects the trainers carefully.  The inmates must be genuinely dedicated to the opportunity to train and nurture the dogs, Farmer said.

“If you’re not down there for the right reasons, it runs down leash and affects these dogs,” she added.  All of the dogs come from the Forsyth Humane Society, and some have been abused, Farmer said.

The program doesn’t try to hide the inmates but “highlights that these guys are trying to make a better choice, that they’re on the right road,” Ostberg, the filmmaker, said. “That’s what I found really inspiring.”

Imprisoned in 2007, Wideman is now the program team leader at Forsyth, Ostberg said. When he is released in 2013, he plans to open a dog kennel that will work with law enforcement to teach at-risk youths about love and responsibility, he says in the documentary.

Before incarceration and his experiences in the program, Wideman said he was not a likable man. Now he’s nicer and less angry, he says in the movie. “The fog’s been lifted,” he added, “and I can’t go back to that man. That man’s dead and gone.”

Getting into the correctional center to film was a difficult, paperwork-ridden, six-month long process, Ostberg said. Even after filming was approved, her access was restricted.

Working with the inmates was simpler and less scary than she expected.  “The fact that I showed up with a camera and said, ‘I’m interested in what you’re doing, I support what you’re doing,’ helped.” Still, only two inmates were willing to wear a cordless microphone, and one man in the program refused to be filmed at all, she said.

Ostberg edited approximately 17 hours of footage down to the current 7-minute, 59-second run-time.

“This is a heartfelt story about guys who feel passionately about what they’re doing now, despite where they’re living,” she said.

The national average rate of recidivism, or re-arrest, is approximately 60%, according to a 2007 article, “The Experiences of Offenders in a Prison Canine Program.” Of the 68 inmates involved in a Wisconsin dog-training program, none have returned, the article said.

“This program does even more astonishing work than I expected,” Ostberg said.

Twenty-one of North Carolina’s 68 correctional facilities utilize dog-training programs for inmate and pet rehabilitation, according to the site for A New Leash on Life.  Adopting the dogs allows the program to continue.

Twenty-nine films, including “A New Life,” will be shown, making it the largest festival so far.

A review committee considers more than100 submitted films each year and selects less than a third of those to play in the festival. Among those selected this year are documentary, experimental, animated and narrative films about illness, insanity, family, time travel, slugs, ghosts, pageants, hip-hop cowboys, farming and jazz.

The festival will show the 29 films in three blocks. Between each block, there will be a Q&A session and an intermission. Adult tickets cost $7, and tickets for children 10 and under cost $3, and will be sold at the Carrboro Century Center on the day of the festival.

The quality of the films submitted this year was high, and Helvey, cofounder of the festival, said there was just not enough time to show all the great films. “That’s really the only downside.”