Reel talk

Christina Fink, MBA’80, shares art house cinema with incarcerated veterans.

Spending Friday night at the movies is a time-honored American tradition. For the past two years, Christina Fink, MBA’80, has brought that familiar routine to an unusual setting: the Vista Detention Center near San Diego, California. Fink’s film appreciation program, Inside the Reels, brings foreign and art house movies to the roughly 70 men in the jail’s unit for incarcerated veterans. To her knowledge, it’s the only program of its kind in the country.

Inside the Reels is “really like a book club,” she says: she and the participating inmates watch a movie together, then discuss it as a group, debating the characters’ actions and director’s intent. Fink, a cinephile who chairs the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, draws from her enormous collection of DVDs, selecting titles she thinks will interest her students.

Fink says the jail’s staff hasn’t limited what she can screen, giving her freedom to choose titles that will prompt discussion, regardless of content. She’s shown everything from Nanook of the North (1922), widely regarded as the first documentary, to Departures, which won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Mississippi Grind (2015), about two men traveling to New Orleans for a poker tournament, prompted an especially lively discussion, as did An Education (2009), about the relationship between a teenage girl and a much older man—a relationship Fink’s students found so troubling, they were still talking about it a week later.

Fink warns the class in advance they shouldn’t expect the usual moviegoing experience: “I tell them, ‘I am not here to entertain you. Don’t kick back, don’t relax. It’s like going to an art museum and sitting in front of a painting for a couple hours and trying to learn about the artist and the time period and the motivation.’”

Fink began working with incarcerated populations 20 years ago, when she volunteered with a literacy group at San Diego’s juvenile detention center. Since then, she’s been a substitute teacher for both juvenile and adult offenders. She was teaching a GED course at Vista when she got the idea for her film class. “I read a lot about film, and I’m watching films constantly,” she says. She found out the jail’s Veteran’s Module needed additional arts programming and realized she could offer her film expertise.

The first year, Fink picked a sampling of movies she loves, but she’s become more methodical, structuring the class around themes: immigration and refugees, food and beverage, classics, film noir, film history.

Through discussing film, the inmates examine their points of view and discover what’s important to them. “It makes them realize, without realizing it, what their value system is,” Fink says. “It changes your critical thinking. ... The guys obviously enjoy the intellectual experience.”