Imprisonment – NZFF Day 7

Day Seven started with a combined showing of two hour-long documentary portraits of United States death row inmates James Barnes and Linda Carty. Death Row: Barnes/Carty is a continuation of Herzog’s larger series of documentaries exploring capital punishment in the United States (the first of which, Into The Abyss, I wrote about almost a week ago). James Barnes, an inmate currently awaiting a date for his death sentence in Florida, was convicted and sentenced to life for the murder of his wife. In prison he converted to Islam however, and confessed to another murder (a horrific, infamous “burning bed” murder committed in 1988) during the holy month of Ramadan. A sociopath with a long history of arson and animal abuse, Barnes comes across as smart, articulate, and direct – apparently repentant, but not to be trusted. Equally as remarkable is Herzog’s second interview with Lisa Carty, who conned three men into helping her burglarize a house by promising them drugs (while actually intending to murder the pregnant female resident  and surgically remove the baby from inside her womb). Carty, who was an informant for the DEA at the times, proclaims her innocence to this day despite the overwhelming evidence against her (including caches of baby clothes and other paraphernalia found inside her home).

The thing I appreciated most about Herzog’s Death Row portraits were that they accomplished (at least for me) what Into The Abyss did not – they actually placed the issue of capital punishment in context. Herzog begins the series with a brief overview of the capital punishment system in the United States, including the number of states that currently allow it, and openly admits he does not support the killing of convicted criminals. However, he successfully avoids making the film(s) into propaganda. Instead, he unflinchingly presents the facts of each case.  Herzog approaches each of his subjects with empathy and curiosity but doesn’t shy away from acknowledging their actions and asking hard questions. As he tells each inmate before their interview, “I don’t have to like you. But I do respect you as a human being.”  He’s wary of the inmates using the series as a platform, and avoids making judgments about guilt, innocence, or responsibility.  With Barnes and Carty in particular, Herzog confronts unique obstacles – Barnes hints that he was responsible for additional murders and admits two of them on camera (perhaps in an attempt to extend his sentence while his claims are investigated), and a closer inspection of Carty’s shoddy original legal defense raises big questions about her sentence.

Because Herzog tries so hard to tell a story and allow viewers to make up their own minds, it takes a bit more mental energy to look beyond the individual situation and connect it to a bigger picture. But the series does raise a lot of interesting questions nonetheless. Is the death penalty based on a desire for retribution, deterrence, or punishment? Are we willing to allow (and pay for) perpetrators of such horrific crimes to continue to live? How far will a person like Barnes, for example, go to preserve or prolong their life? Is he truly remorseful or repentant (and if not, does it really matter)? If the legal system has the potential to fail, for example in the case of Linda Carty, is the death penalty still an acceptable sentence? And why are human beings (and Americans, in particular) so obsessed with adhering to the system, the arranged procedure? How is it possible for people to turn off their emotional and psychological connection to other human beings simply because they’re “following the rules?” It’s worth thinking about.

Production still from Die Wand

Die Wand (The Wall) was the final film of the night – a German flick about a woman who suddenly finds herself cut off from the world by an invisible, impenetrable wall. It’s a very German film – brooding, dreary, melancholy, with a dash of apocalysm. The not-entirely-likeable protagonist/narrator recounts her story in the form of a “report” spanning the first several years of her imprisonment, and the movie follows her as she encounters and eventually learns to live within her isolation. Her despondent, fatalistic melancholia eventually begins to grate on one’s nerves, but I suppose it’s understandable considering her circumstances (not that she was any more likeable before the wall incident happened). Hers is also the only human aspect of the film – equally as as important are her animal companions and the daunting, colossal wilderness in which she lives.  The assortment of animals that progessively show up on her doorstep — a dog, a cat, a cow, and their improbable offspring (because somehow the cat and cow were pregnant) — only make things worse when her love for them is rewarded with their deaths. This is not one of those films with a happy, redemptive ending.

For many of the above reasons I found it a frustrating movie to watch, but it was still a beautiful examination of all sorts of universal issues – the way humans respond to trauma, the alien and destructive presence of man, the cruel vicissitudes of fate. The directors successfully avoid making it a ‘survival and redemption in the face of insurmountable odds’ kind of story. While the film’s protagonist goes through the full Kübler-Ross spectrum (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) in her own pessimistic way, she never really finds a state of peace and unwillingly clings to life despite herself. The cruelty of her situation – the fact that she can see the outside world, complete with villagers frozen in their tracks, for example –  is palpable, but it is interesting that the emotional walls she appears to have at the beginning of the film are manifested outwardly midway through. There’s also the question of whether the outside world has been destroyed and she’s been miraculously preserved (as she seems to think) or whether she’s the ghost trapped inside an invisible territory, doomed to travel within an endless wilderness. There’s also a sense of ‘freedom in imprisonment’ – when she is first exploring the extent of her prison the protagonist dreams about the wall trapping her inside her own cottage, and she’s relieved to find she can walk outside her own door in the morning. The idea that people can feel gratitude even when oppressed is interesting. Of course there’s the whole ‘human compulsion to live’ angle, as well. I’m sure there are even more angles that I haven’t done justice too! It’s the kind of film I find ultimately frustrating because I wholely dislike the protagonist, but the cinematography and storyline are so fascinating that I like it despite myself. Maybe you will too.

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