Sunday, 20 January 2013
Into The Abyss
This documentary from legendary film-maker Werner Herzog, explores the crime that led Michael Perry to be sentenced to death in the US State of Texas. Herzog interviews Perry who is, as you can see, remarkably upbeat for a man who is only eight days away from execution by lethal injection. As well as interviewing the prime felon, Herzog also interviews his accomplices, members of the victims family, prison and police officials and a wider circle of people.
The film starts most promisingly with an interview with the Death Row Chaplain, Revd Richard Lopez. His angst-ridden expression perfectly captures the irreconcilable tension between the pain of the loss of a loved one through murder, the seeming contrition and rehabilitation of the offender, and the requirement of a 'civilised society' to execute the perpetrator.
As the interviews progress, the editing of them is masterful as Herzog weaves his tale. The story exposes how being part of a dysfunctional family begets dysfunctional behaviour. It weaves a web of people who had too little hope as they entered their teens and so dropped out of school, some of them illiterate, most of them drug users and petty criminals. One of Perry's accomplices - Jason Burkett a man of the same age - will not see release from prison until he is nearly 60. This accomplice's father was in gaol when the crime was committed and is since back in gaol serving his own life sentence for a different crime. And so the story goes on.
For me the two most shocking elements were firstly an interview with the former Captain of Execution Wing who was responsible for overseeing on average two executions a week for a number of years. For him, the turning point came when the first woman was executed in the faciltity. He suffered a moral and emotional breakdown and had to resign his post and is so doing lost all pension benefits for a lifetime or service to the prison - a public servant, morally, emotionally and financially violated. This act of violence went unpunished. The second shocking disclosure was from Melyssa Burkett who corresponded with Jason when he was an inmate and at the time was unknown to her. They fell in love and married!
In the ceremony conducted in gaol with guards present, they were only allowed to hold hands yet miraculously a few days later she fell pregnant with his child (so we are told) having been artificially inseminated. In the picture above Melyssa displays on her phone an ultrasound picture of the child she is carrying.
It seems totally baffling to me that a society can allow deprivation and poor social provision to conspire and allow people such as Burkett and Perry to emerge as criminals and then collude in the 'smuggling' of inmate sperm to impregnate a woman. It seems to me that this is a system designed to perpetuate dysfunctionality! Perhaps I am being politically incorrect but no-one seems to be taking any responsibility for what has gone on here - except to put Perry and Burkett before a jury and then to execute one - 10 years after the trial, and lock the other up for most of his life. I am not advocating being soft on criminals and I am certainly not trying to ignore or play down the loss suffered by those who had loved ones murdered. What I am crying out for is some common sense and the chance for societies to be given the resources and encouragement to offer the possibility of transformation taking place, to give people a chance in life and find ways of offering restitution that does not mean the loss of yet another life.
As a piece of cinema, this film had wonderful editing, some very good cinematography and the always entertaining intonation of Bavaria's finest film-maker. Perhaps because it has moved me to rant, it is very good documentary film-making - although I'm not sure that was what Herzog intended necessarily. This film would be an excellent way of setting up a discussion and exploration of the themes it presents - I know that other opinions are available. However, as a viewing spectacle it left me frustrated and given the hyperbole surrounding it's release I am going to award it only 6/10.