Although Into The Abyss, the new Werner Herzog documentary was supposed to be screened during the festival, what was actually shown (without any announcement or acknowledgement previous to or during the screening from MIFF) was two episodes of the four part mini-series On Death Row, which the feature documentary originated from, and it’s a shame because the two episodes really make you want to see the feature.
The concept of the series is that each episode tells the story of a convicted murderer on death row in the United States while awaiting their execution date. Herzog gets his politics out of the way early on acknowledging his objection to capital punishment in the credit sequence and then sets about exploring the facts of the case, but more importantly, in true Herzog form, he explores the humanity of his subjects. The first (and better) of the episode screened was Portrait: James Barnes which deals with the story of a self-confessed serial killer in Florida. His story is a horrifying one, made all the more harrowing because he is intelligent and articulate in his interview and readily admits to his crimes. The second, Portrait: Lindy Carter, functions as less of a profile of the Carter but more on her case, which she denies her involvement in. While lacking the over whelming power of the first episode, it is still thrilling material.
Told honestly and revealing, with some unexpected humour (Herzog begins the conversation with Barnes by telling him that just because he’s interested in him doesn’t mean he has to like him), this is excellent work, but extremely grueling. It is certainly a change of pace for Herzog whose work is usually full of the hope and spirit of extraordinary people, but here is the complete opposite.
NOTE: A representative of MIFF contacted me after the screening (in response to a request) to say that MIFF are looking into screening the real film during the festival. The representative didn’t give a reason for the “mis-screening” or say what the second scheduled screening of Into The Abyss would actually be showing.
On Death Row is screening in the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival. Check here for screening times.