ConductingHopeLOGO.WTThe Hills Of Music
Conducting Hope
Documentary on The East Hill Singers
Commentary: Kirk Carson, David McCune, and Michael, Darryl, Kurt, Essex, David and Shawn
Accompanist: Stephanie Henry
Warden: David McCune
Director/Producer: Margie Friedman
Cinematographer: Shana Hagan
Westport Productions LLC/Kansas Humanities Council
No Rating but could be PG 13
Running Length: 58 minutes
Screened 10/5/13 at Kansas International Film Festival (KIFF)
Nominee for Best Documentary
Kansas Lansing Correctional Facility sits amid rolling hills on the Eastern side of the state. No flat prairie here and the Federal Prison at Leavenworth is a bit up the road, where a herd of bison graze between the prison and the highway. When you have been sentenced for a crime, a cell, work area and recreational facilities are what you see for the term of your sentence. Some of the crimes mentioned by the singers are manufacturing methamphetamines, attempted murder and robbery. Offering arts in various mediums whether it be writing or music, is a way of trying to keep an inmate from returning to crime, and reduce the percentage of people going back to prison. Arts in Prison, Inc. is one group that offers music as an opportunity for recreation and to better oneself while time passes. Thus, in 1995, under the director of Elvira Voth, The East Hill Singers began and have been singing ever since, now under the direction of Kirk Carson.
What makes this program unique through the country is that the inmates go outside prison walls to perform concerts. With budget cuts and no security personnel, it looked as though this wouldn't be possible anymore, but security personnel donate their time, and the concerts continue. In fact, at the end of the screening of this documentary for the public at the Kansas International Film Festival (KIFF), the audience was treated to a 30-minute performance by The East Hill Singers. A surprise to the audience to have men in denim work shirts and jeans come down the side aisles holding music folders and stand in front of a large movie theater screen for a concert. 
The documentary follows the East Hill Singers, with director Kirk Carson, through rehearsals for their latest concert, from vocal exercises to discussing what this music program means to them and being able to go outside prison walls, for a few hours, to see life out there. Members learn what it is like to be on a team, stand together, breathe together, hold a note together, match the pitch together and get the words to the audience. One of the songs the choir sings was written by an inmate, who is not part of the group and is in maximum security. It is about redemption and combines rap with a soft Gregorian chant. 
Members of the outside community, including former inmates, meet to rehearse the same choral selections and the whole program is put together an hour or so before the concert. Former inmates who still sing with the choir say being with the group gives them a sense of worth and belonging to the community. What the audience sees is a 50-member choir of men. Songs range from Franz Schubert’s “Holy, Holy, Holy” to “The Battle of Jericho” to what many call the theme song of the Singers, a Swedish hymn arranged by Elvira Voth called “May the Gift of Human Kindness.” 
The camera is on the road with the men from leaving the prison, driving to the concert location in vans, and the concert and reception afterward, where comments are made on the difference between prison food and the home-made desserts at the reception. Then, it is back to the prison and as the vans enter through the iron gates, back to life behind bars.
Conducting Hope” will be shown on national PBS in November 2013. Check your local PBS station for dates and times.
Copyright 2013 Marie Asner