Documentaries often explore life's fundamental questions and, of course, no questions are more fundamental than those concerning the matter of life and death.
Does anyone ever have the right to take a human life?
Is capital punishment ever justified? Does your answer change if a person is guilty? How should we punish someone who has committed a truly monstrous act? What happens when a justice system fails or is simply not fit for purpose?
There are many stunning and thought-provoking documentaries about crime and punishment that consider these questions (and more). Here are seven of my favourites…
Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale Of Life
Thanks to Wener Herzog’s honest and insistent questioning (of which he is a master) and lingering camera, Into The Abyss is one of the most devastating and thought provoking documentaries about crime and punishment, life and death.
The film examines the murders of Sandra Stotler, her son, Adam Stotler, and Adam’s friend, Jeremy Richardson. Micheal Perry and Jason Burkett were found guilty of these brutal, senseless crimes. Their motive? The left of a car.
While Herzog is against capital punishment, Into The Abyss is a remarkably balanced documentary. Herzog is particularly fascinated by the idea that inmates on death row know the date and the time (often down to the last second) that they will die. As a result, they hold knowledge that few of us will ever have.
Into The Abyss contemplates existence in the light of this knowledge and questions how we should live our lives. What should we take from the experiences of those on death row? Should this knowledge make us cherish life more?
West Of Memphis
On 6 May, 1993 the naked and mutilated bodies of three eight year old boys - Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers - were found in a watery ditch in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Under significant pressure to solve the crime and in the midst of satanic panic hysteria, three local teenagers - Damien Echols, his friend Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley - were arrested, charged and convicted of the brutal murders.
The case of the West Memphis Three was controversial from the start. It immediately drew the attention of the media. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made three films about the murders - the Paradise Lost trilogy.
The story would also come to the attention of another pair of filmmakers - Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson. They believed that the convictions were a devastating miscarriage of justice and felt compelled to use their resources to help free the West Memphis Three.
Time was of the essence. Echols was 18 when he was convicted and, as a result, was sitting on death row. In 2006, Walsh and Jackson focused on DNA evidence to support a legal argument for a new trial.
Incredibly, the judge dismissed the evidence. Walsh and Jackson were devastated. What could they do? What stronger weapon was there to prove Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley’s innocence than hard science? And then they realised what they had left in their arsonal - the ability to galvanise public opinion.
Fourteen Days in May
Paul Hamann’s stunning and moving documentary follows 14 days in the life of death row inmate, Edward Earl Johnson, as he moves towards his scheduled date of execution.
Johnson, a 26-year-old African-American man from Mississippi, was found guilty of murder after signing a confession that he had not written. There was no other evidence and Johnson always denied the killing. He appealed against his death sentence for eight years in the US courts.
Hamann secures remarkable, intimate and powerful access to Johnson, his family, the prison's warden, prison guards, and other prisoners.
Fourteen Days in May also features Johnson’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, who advocates for him and, in powerful scenes, highlights the catastrophic and devastating flaws inherent in the concept of capital punishment.
13th starts by addressing a sobering statistic. The US - often called the land of the free - has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Even more shocking is the fact that one in three black males in America will go to prison at some point during their lives. That's compared to one in 17 white men.
Ava DuVernay’s documentary looks at what lies behind this discrepancy. A series of fascinating experts and academics explain how, after years of fighting for freedom and equality, black communities are still waiting for long promised change.
The Farm: Angola, USA
Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack’s documentary explores the concept of time in the US prison system. There is never enough time for those inmates on death row. However, for those serving hefty prison sentences, time is overwhelming.
Like 13th, The Farm: Angola, USA also draws disturbing parallels between the US prison system and slavery. Stationed on an old slave plantation, the film depicts a maximum security prison populated by a majority of black inmates (who are put to work in the fields that form part of the prison) and staffed by a white administration.
Garbus and Stack interview several inmates. Regardless of their guilt or innocence, they all have devastating stories to tell. As a result, The Farm: Angola, USA is a powerful and deeply unsettling examination of the prison system.
In the blazing Californian heat, a line of men make their way into Folsom Prison. However, these are not convicts - they are visitors about to attend a four day Inside Circle therapy retreat with the incarcerated men inside.
In scenes full of tension and emotion, The Work explores the (often thin) line between the free and the imprisoned. It challenges our preconceptions and reveals the value of shared experience.
The Fear Of 13
After 23 years on Death Row, convicted murderer Nick Yarris requested that all appeals cease and his sentence of death be carried out. Documentary filmmaker David Sington interviews Yarris about his decision.
The Fear Of 13’s story is told by Nick Yarris himself - there are no other voices in this compelling film. He starts by explaining what it feels like to be found guilty and imprisoned on death row. He describes the eerie silence in a world without sunlight.
Yarris is a soft spoken and fluent storyteller. Before long, I found myself mesmerised - not only by his story but also by his delivery. And then I felt uncomfortable - should I allow myself to feel this way? He is a convicted murderer after all.
Nothing is as it first appears, of course. This is a film that is best viewed with as little prior knowledge of the case as possible. The Fear Of 13 is a gripping, shocking and ultimately uplifting documentary.
Over To You...
Have you watched any of these seven films about crime and punishment? If so, what did you think? Are there any other documentaries in this area that you would recommend?
Do let me know, you can leave a comment in the section below or let’s discuss over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.