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Nesson receives grant for documentary

Emerson faculty Bob Nesson films on location. Nesson was awarded a Mass Humanities grant for his next project, Coping.

Documentary filmmaker and Emerson College faculty Bob Nesson was awarded a grant from Mass Humanities to work on a new project following men and women as they re-enter society after spending time in prison.

Nesson’s project, Coping, will receive $10,000 in preproduction funding from Mass Humanities, a nonprofit that offers and funds programs that use history, literature, and other humanities disciplines to improve civic life in the state. The grant was part of Mass Humanities’ “Negotiating the Social Contract” initiative, which “allows participants to examine today’s social contract negotiations, face to face, in the context of a particular issue or set of issues of interest in a particular community or place.”

Coping will follow its subjects “as they emerge from behind prison walls, cope with reintroduction to everyday life, interact with family and community, learn skills and technologies new to them, and adjust to the search for housing and jobs, and taking on new responsibilities,” according to the grant proposal.

The documentary will be filmed over a period of up to five years, and will be focused on the Boston area, where Nesson has already been doing research.

The film looks “to enhance and improve civic life in Massachusetts by directly engaging with those whose lives are affected by historic forces that have led to racism, economic disparities, and shattered families and communities.”

Nesson said that a few years ago, students in his Documentary for Social Action class did a film about Haley House Café, a bakery/café in Dudley Square that hires people who have been incarcerated. The film opened his eyes to the people who were trying to make lives for themselves after serving time.

He began doing research. At the beginning of the Reagan Administration, there were 300,000 people behind bars, Nesson said. Today, there are 2.3 million people—the majority of them people of color who may have grown up in communities fractured by poverty, a lack of male role models, and poorly funded schools, he said.

They are locked up for years, without access to education or training, and the coping mechanisms they develop in prison to survive are oftentimes a detriment to them once they are back in the outside world, Nesson explained.

“We need lawmakers, and people in general, to understand what’s happened in this country,” Nesson said. “What I proposed was a film that follows several characters from behind bars, throughout the transition back into their communities, back into their families, and so on, to illustrate the challenges they face.”

Nesson said Coping also will “illustrate the possibilities” for these men and women once they return to their communities.

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