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After Filmmaker’s Death, Her Husband And A Longtime Collaborator Work To Finish Her Last Film04:46
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Andrew Kukura and Frank Phillips look at the latest version of the trailer for “The Angola Project,” a film which Phillips’ late wife Jenny began before her unexpected death last summer. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Andrew Kukura and Frank Phillips look at the latest version of the trailer for “The Angola Project,” a film which Phillips’ late wife Jenny began before her unexpected death last summer. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

After driving down a windy road toward Frank Phillips’ Concord home, I’m greeted at the front door by his enthusiastic dog, still a puppy really. Frank explains that his children and grandchildren foisted the dog on him a month after his wife died.

Jenny Phillips, an accomplished filmmaker, died last July. She jumped off her sailboat to swim to shore, as she often did. That evening she didn't make it back.

Frank pours me a strong cup of coffee and talks about his wife of 51 years. Jenny’s career spanned nursing, cultural anthropology, and psychotherapy, always with an eye on social justice. Together she and Frank served in the Peace Corps and helped preserve Hemingway’s estate in Cuba. She was something of a renaissance woman. That could be why Frank says, “My title is Jenny Phillips' husband."

Raw wooden beams from an old barn hold up the living room ceiling. Rows of books and old family photos, some pulled out since Jenny’s death, line the shelves. Through the kitchen and down the hall, a poster for her first documentary, “The Dhamma Brothers,” hangs on the wall.

Over a decade ago Jenny organized a 10-day silent meditation for inmates in Alabama. Frank says at the time, it seemed like a crazy idea. He wondered how she was going to do it. “If you know Jenny you don’t get between her and what she wants. I’ve been there many times and it’s not a good place to be,” he says with a laugh. “And she really persuaded the corrections department to turn the gymnasium into an ashram.”

Jenny once wrote that she felt that the prisoners’ transformation “could only be fully told through film.” So she made one.

Jenny Phillips, center, poses in a photograph with Rick Smith, left, and Grady Bankhead, prison inmates at Donaldson Correction Facility and subjects in her documentary film "The Dhamma Brothers." (Courtesy Frank Phillips)
Jenny Phillips, center, poses in a photograph with Rick Smith, left, and Grady Bankhead, prison inmates at Donaldson Correction Facility and subjects in her documentary film "The Dhamma Brothers." (Courtesy Frank Phillips)

After that, she made “Beyond The Wall,” this time in Massachusetts, about adapting to life after prison. Then she got started on her third documentary about a mentoring program at Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola. The program pairs inmates with long sentences with those soon-to-be-released, with the aim to dramatically reduce recidivism. That idea energized Jenny. Frank says she couldn’t stop talking about it.

“She was very happy,” Frank recalls. “I could see it. It was very much on her mind. This film was very much on her mind.”

Jenny was showing him footage just before she drowned last July. In the aftermath, Frank says he knew the film had to get made, “There is no other choice but to do that.”

Frank’s not a filmmaker. He spent the majority of his career as The Boston Globe’s State House bureau chief. But that didn’t stop him from calling up Andy Kukura, documentary director and editor, and Jenny’s collaborator on all three films. Within a few months, Frank, Andy and crew were shooting scenes at Angola.

Andrew Kukura and Frank Phillips. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Andrew Kukura and Frank Phillips. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Andy says that he’ll carry on with directing while Frank helps with fundraising as the executive producer. Andy sees the work-in-progress they’re calling “The Angola Project” as the capstone to he and Jenny’s trilogy of prison films in large part because Angola’s re-entry program offers a solution. For him, hope is the through line — crucial to the films Jenny was interested in making.

He says he thinks her first film was her saying to the world, "Look. These men, they're alive, they're behind bars, they need treatment, even if they're never going to get out. It's important to do that work because where there's life there's hope."

Both Frank and Andy acknowledge that working together has helped them through an evolving grieving process. And in a way, what they see in the footage echoes what’s happening between the two of them.

“I think ultimately it's a hopeful message of men supporting one another. Men mentoring each other, helping each other get through,” says Andy.

According to Andy, they plan to have a rough cut of “The Angola Project” completed this fall, with high hopes to share the film widely next spring.

As for Frank, he’s still going by Jenny Phillips’ husband.

This segment aired on July 3, 2019.

Erin Trahan Twitter Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for The ARTery.

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