Polished Documentaries Shine at SXSW

By Jim Cullen

The Sundance Film Festival in Park Cities, Utah, draws the A-List actors and is where the big-money distribution deals are made, so it’s still the brass ring that independent filmmakers reach for, but South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas, has earned a reputation as a forum for filmmakers and fans. And at least if you’re in line to get into a theater, you won’t be waiting in the snow. The 15th annual SXSW festival, which runs about six weeks after Sundance and the week before the SXSW Music Festival, featured more than 250 films at seven theaters, plus a few other venues for special screenings, such as the local Imax theater’s showing of Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s new Rolling Stones concert film.

Personally, I look for the documentaries. Many of the good narrative features at the festival will be screened soon enough in your local cineplex, or at least they will get a limited release on the arthouse circuit and will become available on DVD. But documentaries, the poor cousins of the film industry, need all the help they can get. Some will get broadcast on PBS or cable channels, but few will get a theatrical release. SXSW shines at giving aspiring documentarians a roomful of interested viewers and some gratifying feedback.

Some of the highlights from this year’s festival:

At the Death House Door, a documentary by Steve James and Peter Gilbert (makers of Hoop Dreams), examines the death penalty through the experiences of Rev. Carroll Pickett, a Presbyterian minister in Huntsville, Texas, who spent a dozen years preparing Texas Death Row prisoners for execution, and Carlos De Luna, a petty criminal who almost certainly was wrongly executed for the 1983 stabbing death of a Corpus Christi gas station clerk.

Pickett’s support for the death penalty, dating from the murder of his grandfather, was reinforced when two congregants who worked at the state prison were killed after a lengthy siege in 1974. He reluctantly agreed to become a prison chaplain in “The Walls” unit in 1979. He was “death house chaplain” from 1982 to 1995, ministering to 95 inmates on the day of their executions, preparing them to go quietly. After each execution Pickett went home to record his experiences on a cassette recorder. He came to view the condemned inmates as human beings and figured that it was wrong for the state to kill them.

De Luna’s case helped turn Pickett around. Police found De Luna hiding near the crime scene, and he was identified by a witness, but there was no blood on his clothing, his fingerprints were not found on the knife or at the scene and he told police that the murder was committed by an acquaintance, Carlos Hernandez. Prosecutors maintained during the trial that Hernandez was “a phantom” made up by the defendant. De Luna maintained that he was innocent until he was strapped in for the fatal dose in 1989 at age 27. In the meantime the high school dropout had earned a GED and took college-level courses. Pickett was sympathetic, but he didn’t encourage De Luna to resist his execution because it would “just bring about more suffering.”

Eighteen years later, Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Maury Possley began investigating inconsistencies in the De Luna case. The irregularities included the fact that there was no robbery connected with the murder, which was necessary to justify the death penalty; that Hernandez was well-known to police and prosecutors; that the hunting knife found at the scene was identical to one carried by Hernandez; and that Hernandez, who resembled De Luna, had bragged of the murder to half a dozen people and claimed that De Luna had taken the fall. In the end, De Luna’s execution was botched and he was alive—probably in great pain—for many more minutes than he was supposed to have been. At one point, Pickett recalled, De Luna lifted his head off the gurney and stared at Pickett.

Pickett is now active with the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, along with De Luna’s sister, Rose Rhoton, who tried to save her brother, but nobody listened, including the lawyers she hired to handle his appeal. The film ends with the 400th execution since the introduction of lethal injection. After Pickett’s retirement, the prison stopped having a chaplain spend the whole day preparing the condemned to die. Now “they bring him in at 4 p.m. and two hours later it’s time to kill him.”

The documentary is expected to be shown on the Independent Film Channel May 29. Pickett has written a book on his experiences, Within These Walls. See ifc.com/atthedeathhousedoor.

Tulia, Texas, directed by Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen, shows how the war on drugs can go badly wrong when the local sheriff brought in an independent narcotics agent, to uncover drug dealers in Tulia, a Texas Panhandle town of approximately 5,100 population. After 18 months, Tom Coleman produced a list of 46 suppliers—39 of whom were black—and most of them were dragged from their homes early one July morning in 1999 on charges of delivering just enough cocaine to put them away for years. Coleman was named “Texas Lawman of the Year” while most of the Tulia defendants—including some who had solid alibis—were sent to prison for lengthy sentences based on Coleman’s uncorroborated testimony. One woman was cleared only because she was able to document a bank transaction in Oklahoma City, 300 miles from Tulia, when Coleman had her selling him cocaine. Another contradicted the lawman with her work timecard, but others pled guilty after the first few defendants who claimed innocence were handed draconian prison sentences of up to 99 years by all-white juries. Later, a team of lawyers from Lubbock with support from the NAACP and other civil rights groups exposed Coleman’s legal troubles in other counties and discrepancies in evidence to reopen the cases. As Coleman’s stories fell apart, his victims finally were pardoned in 2003. But neither the sheriff nor local prosecutors nor the forewoman of one of the juries will admit that there was a miscarriage of justice. See tuliatexasfilm.com.

Writ Writer, directed by Susanne Mason, tells the story of Fred A. Cruz, a prisoner and self-taught jailhouse lawyer and “writ writer” who struggled to reform the brutal Texas prison system in the 1960s and ’70s. A petty criminal who grew up in segregated San Antonio in the 1940s and ’50s, he was convicted of robbery in 1961 and sent to prison for 15 years at age 21. He started poring over lawbooks as he sought to appeal his conviction. As he started to win a reputation as an inmate who could help others write and file writs of habeas corpus and other documents seeking relief from the courts, Cruz was singled out as an “agitator” by prison officials and he was sent to solitary confinement for infractions such as having a copy of the US Constitution in his cell. Eventually prison officials had the bright idea to put Cruz and several other writ writers together in a wing of the maximum-security Wynne Unit in an attempt to control them, but they became known as the “Eight-Hoe Squad” and produced not only Cruz’s lawsuit that got the Supreme Court in 1972 to rule that prison officials could not stop prisoners from petitioning the courts, but also the class-action lawsuit in federal court, filed by David Ruiz in 1971 and finally decided in 1980, that forced overdue reforms of the prison system.

Obscene, directed by Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenberg, is a fascinating documentary on Barney Rosset, a little-known character nowadays who was a champion for free speech as publisher of Grove Press and the Evergreen Review in the 1950s and ’60s as he fought landmark court battles to overturn obscenity statutes in order to publish such now-classic books as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl as well as the Autobiography of Malcolm X and the work of five Nobel laureates. Legal costs ate up much of the profits. Rosset made a fortune distributing I Am Curious (Yellow), which was censored for its nudity and depictions of sexual intercourse, but the costs of pursuing the anti-censorship case to the Supreme Court and costly later movie fiascoes put the company in financial difficulties that caused Rosset to sell the company to investors who ended up firing him. See doubleofilm.com.

Secrecy, directed by Peter Galison and Robb Moss, documents the evolution of state secrets, including the privilege that allows the government to ask courts to exclude evidence from a legal case based solely on an affidavit from the government stating that court proceedings might disclose sensitive information that might endanger national security. The Supreme Court affirmed the privilege in the 1953 Reynolds decision that allowed the Air Force to refuse to release official reports on a B-29 Superfortress crash in Georgia, claiming that it would threaten national security by revealing the flight’s top-secret mission. Ironically, the accident reports from the 1948 crash were declassified and released in 2000, revealing that the argument was fraudulent and there was no secret information. The reports did contain information about the poor maintenance of the aircraft, which apparently caused the crash, which was withheld from the families of crash victims. The film includes interviews with intelligence officials, citizens affected by government secrecy, journalists and lawyers involved in landmark cases against government control of information as it examines the proliferation of state secrets in the post-9/11 war on terrorism and the current administration’s attempts to expand the power of the presidency. See secrecyfilm.com.

Body of War, directed by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, tells the story of Tomas Young, who enlisted on 9/13/2001 to fight the terrorists responsible for 9/11. Instead he found himself sent to Iraq where, shortly after his arrival, he was shot and paralyzed from the chest down. The film follows Young’s subsequent work with the Iraq Veterans Against the War and his personal journey as he copes with his disabilities and brings attention to the poor care provided to veterans. It is viewed within the backdrop of the Senate’s fateful debate—in which Republicans as well as some Democrats repeated White House talking points on the presumption of weapons of mass destruction under Saddam Hussein’s control in Iraq while Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., warned against the rush to war. In one affecting scene, Young meets Bobby Muller, an antiwar activist who was paralyzed with a similar wound in Vietnam, and finds out how much less rehabilitation disabled vets now receive, compared with the Vietnam generation. See ivaw.org and bodyofwar.com.

Crawford, directed by David Modigliani, looks at the changes in George W. Bush’s adopted hometown since he bought a former hog farm and upgraded it to the “Western White House.” Bush, who was then governor of Texas, surprised residents when he bought the estate outside the small town near Waco in 1999 as he geared up his presidential campaign. Students became more politically aware, storefronts that had been vacant for years got filled with businesses and residents saw the opportunity to cash in. But when Cindy Sheehan and thousands of other peace activists protested the Iraq war to Crawford as they camped outside Bush’s property, it also forced Crawford to examine its relationship with Dubya.

Wrecking Crew, directed by Danny Tedesco, tells the story of an elite group of Los Angeles-based studio musicians such as his dad, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, whose licks drove some of the most popular songs of the 1960s and ’70s. Working with “name” artists such as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, the Byrds, the Monkees, Carpenters, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys, the Association, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas and dozens more, the Wrecking Crew, so named because an old-timer groused that their rock music would wreck the music business, were 20 to 30 musicians who worked anonymously but constantly for producers such as Phil Spector, Lou Adler and Bones Howe as LA grew into the pop music center. The film includes interviews with some of the best-known of the Crew,” such as guitarists Glen Campbell and Tommy Tedesco, bassist Carol Kaye, keyboardist Don Randi and drummers Hal Blaine and Julius Wechter as well as producers and artists who gave the Crew belated credit for backing more than 120 hits through the years.

To be continued in the next issue.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2008

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