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Dead & Roses

'Dead Man Walking' hits home for prison activist Mimi Farina

By David Templeton

David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, David takes musician/activist Mimi Farina, founder of the world-renowned outreach organization Bread & Roses, to see the powerful death-row drama, Dead Man Walking.

On screen, we have just witnessed an execution. We have just learned more about lethal injection, laboriously re-created in specific, calculated detail, than we ever wanted to know. I glance at Mimi Farina. Her eyes are full of tears. She has been holding her breath, on and off, for over a half-hour. "Well," she says softly as the credits roll. And that about says it.

is the true story of Sister Helen Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon), the first woman in the history of the New Orleans prison system to serve as spiritual counselor to a man on death row, an assignment requiring that she be present during the final days and hours of the prisoner, in this case a murderer named Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn). It is a harrowing, balanced, and stirring film with moments both horrifying and beautiful, often at the same time.

Farina, best known as a singer/songwriter and one-time member of the satirical '60s group The San Francisco Committee, is the founder and director of Bread and Roses, an award-winning, groundbreaking, 22-year-old organization that brings free, live music to people in isolation--in hospitals, convalescent homes, homeless shelters, and prisons. Musicians donate their services, performing an average of 40 concerts per month. Performers have included Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez (Farina's sister), Boz Scaggs, and Judy Collins. The entire operation is run from a tiny office in Mill Valley.

"Let me tell you our specials," smiles our server as we settle into a nearby cafe after the movie. We listen to the list of dishes, and the minute the waitress leaves, Farina grins engagingly. "Somehow," she laughs, "having just seen someone eat his last meal, the reading of specials seems especially odd. Oh dear." In the Committee days, they might have done a sketch based on just such an absurd juxtaposition. "I think it's worth living in that absurdist point of view for a while to try and keep things light." She pauses, adding, "The film was a lot to handle. I identified with her position, Sister Helen's, and I wondered how I would manage in the same setting," Farina eventually muses. "I think I could identify with where she was coming from--kind of not really knowing why she was doing this."

In the film, Sister Helen is confronted by the parents of Poncelet's victims, who are enraged that she would try to offer comfort to this man. "I was giving a speech once," Farina recalls. "It was a Men's Breakfast Club. I gave my heartfelt spiel and they were falling asleep, with their faces in their bacon. I was thinking, 'How am I going to get through to these people? What am I doing here?'

"So this guy in the back, who'd been pacing around, hollered out of the blue, 'Where do you get the nerve to go sing for killers?' And I was so naive, I thought he was helping me, to get me talking because no one was paying attention. But he was for real! And I was floored when I realized that."

How did she respond?

"I thanked him for asking such a poignant question," she smiles. "And I said that I didn't see them as killers, but as human beings." She tells a story from the early days of Bread and Roses, of a gig at a folk festival in Winnipeg that spontaneously turned into a trip to a nearby prison. Among the festival musicians was Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who initially declined to go to the prison.

"But Jack couldn't resist a party," Farina laughs. "He jumped on the bus at the last minute. He decided to sing last, and he had his chin on his guitar, watching all these other singers. Then he got up and he sang 'Pretty Boy Floyd.' One lyric goes. 'Pretty Boy grabbed the log chain, and the deputy grabbed the gun, and in the fight that followed, he laid that deputy down.'

"I thought, 'He's a genius!' He knew exactly what he was doing, and when he got to that line, the prisoners cheered, and he'd won them over. He understood what they needed to hear, which was their story. This is an unrecognized population. They're 'worthless,' and 'meaningless,' and they're meant to die. Living under those circumstances, anytime someone comes in and says, 'I recognize you. You're a human being,' it warms their hearts. It may come in the form of a song, or in the form of a nun reading the Bible to the bitter end." She smiles again. "That's better than nothing."

From the Jan. 25-31, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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