Lynn Novick has been directing and producing landmark documentary films about American life and culture, history, politics, sports, art, architecture, literature, and music for more than 30 years. The 80 hours of acclaimed PBS programming she has created in collaboration with Ken Burns include The Vietnam War, Baseball, Jazz, Frank Lloyd Wright, The War, and Prohibition. These landmark series have garnered 19 Emmy nominations. Lynn herself has received Emmy, Peabody, and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards.


College behind Bars, Lynn's first film as a solo director, premiered at the New York Film Festival and aired on PBS in 2019. The four-part series immerses viewers in the inspiring and transformational journey of a small group of incarcerated men and women serving time for serious crimes, as they try to earn college degrees in one of the most rigorous prison education programs in America β€” the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI).


Lynn's latest series alongside Ken Burns, The U.S. and the Holocaust, explores the US knowledge of and responds to the Jewish Holocaust, the greatest humanitarian crisis of the twentieth century. It's now streaming on PBS and premiering later this month in Jerusalem.


We spoke at the end of August 2022, and I was excited to talk to Lynn after watching her remarkable College Behind Bars series. I watched the series after listening to an interview she did with Sam Harris on his podcast, and it really floored me. It proved so eloquently and so simply the basic truth β€” that crime and poverty are more often than not the result of lack β€” lack of opportunity, lack of access, lack of information, and lack of belonging.


It shows the transformative power of education, opportunity, respect, and high expectations, even on people convicted of violent crimes. And in that way it very subtly but powerfully condemns the system that doesn't provide such opportunities.


It was wonderful to chat with Lynn, learn about her life in documentary making, and hear about her experience behind the scenes making College Behind Bars and her continued engagement with the students in the film long after the filming.




In this conversation we talk about:

  • The US and the Holocaust documentary, and the antisemitism, xenophobia and nativism, and the rejection of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
  • How the Watergate crisis led her down the path to documentary filmmaking.
  • The power of documentaries to change views and bring truth to life.
  • The films she made alongside Ken Burns covering the Vietnam War, jazz, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others.
  • Her film, College Behind Bars, and the process of making it.
  • The Bard Prison Initiative and why it is so special.
  • The history of prison and education.
  • The power of education.
  • History of crime and punishment in the US.
  • And many other topics. 


Lynn goes deep into topic after topic in American life, and as a result she's a broad and fascinating thinker and speaker. Beyond the incredible power of College Behind Bars, what stayed with me is the power of documentary film to start us thinking and talking about complex topics, and in some cases, like with College Behind Bars, to affect a change in policy.


This conversation is one a dozen or so weekly conversations we already have lined up for you with thinkers, designers, makers, authors, entrepreneurs, and activists who are working to change our world for the better. So follow this podcast on your favorite podcast app, or head over to to subscribe.


And now, let's jump right in with Lynn Novick.




[5:52] Life in the Present

[7:17] The U.S. and the Holocaust

[14:55] History to the Masses

[18:28] Early Childhood Lessons

[21:47] A Journey to Film

[25:16] Frank Lloyd Wright

[28:27] Encapsulating America

[34:54] College Behind Bars

[40:00] The Bard Prison Initiative

[52:37] After Production

[54:19] Crime and Punishment in America

[1:01:35] A Short Sermon