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Documentary follows Santa Rosa woman’s quest to know her prison inmate father

Shortly after Jessica Stillman celebrated her ninth birthday in the mid-’90s, her father went to prison. She has spent much of her life after that just trying to get close to him.

Her story is at the center of “Invisible Bars,” a new documentary by Benicia filmmaker John Beck about the children of incarcerated parents, airing Tuesday through Thursday on KQED-TV in San Francisco and April 15 on KRCB-TV in Rohnert Park.

The film follows Jessica behind bars for a rare sit-down interview with her father Fred Stillman, who served 23 years in Soledad state prison for second-degree murder after a bar fight in Lake County.

“Fred Stillman was tough and cynical at first and ready to fight. It wasn’t until he started to get contact and visits from family that he started to turn around,” Beck said.

“Jessica became a parent to her father. I was hoping to cover the next chapter.”

As a result of Stillman’s new willingness to participate in rehabilitation programs, he was ultimately released last August.

Jessica Stillman, now 32, lives in Santa Rosa and works as intervention manager for Verity, Sonoma County’s rape crisis, trauma and healing center.

Jessica met Beck four years ago at Project Avary in San Rafael, a program for children whose parents are in prison.

She had been a summer camper there as a youth, and returned there as an adult to work on her master’s degree in public health.

“The executive director at Project Avary knew John Beck,” she said.

“I’d already been visiting my dad pretty much on a monthly basis because he was going up before the parole board.”

Beck, who had made three previous documentaries and worked as a Press Democrat staff writer from 1998 to 2009, was able to follow Jessica into the prison.

“John showed that he cared about these men,” she said. “Once he was done with one of the first drafts of the film, we took it back to the prison to show to the guys. It got pretty emotional.”

Beck’s previous films include “Worst of Show,” about the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma, and “Harvest,” which follows five family wineries and features an all-female grape picking crew from Mexico.

“Invisible Bars” show times are on KQED are 11 p.m. Tuesday, March 19; 5 a.m. Wednesday, March 20, and 10 a.m. Thursday, March 21. The film also airs at 9 p.m. April 15 on KRCB.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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