I recently watched the first in a series of documentaries on Channel 4, called Death Row, filmed by German film director Werner Herzog. The aptly (albeit slightly unimaginative) named program consisted of Herzog interviewing a prisoner on death row. The interview begins by Herzog explaining to the prisoner, Hank Skinner, that he isn't filming in order to prove his innocence. True to his word, the film takes a very objective and balanced approach.
The majority of the program consists of Skinner talking behind a glass partition. He has always protested his innocence of the crime that landed him on death row – he allegedly murdered his girlfriend and her two sons.
Anyone who doesn’t find death row fascinating should get their pulse checked. For those who don’t live in one of the 34 states that still practice the death penalty – there’s such a disparity between the idea of death row and the society we live in. It’s such a backwards system that doesn’t coincide with our reality. Around half of us, however, would vote to bring back capital punishment to the UK.
Its collisions with mental illness are especially fascinating. And that’s what drew me in for the entirety of this documentary. I was filled with ambivalence throughout the film – Skinner was charming, funny, endearing and eloquent. Yet, he also came across as slightly manic, and completely dissociated.The problem in this case, and with any interview of this nature, however, is that Skinner has had 17 years to practice his story and how he presents it.
The interview was extremely refreshing in that it didn’t have you constantly questioning his innocence. It simply told his story. One part of the documentary did go to the scene of the crime to interview the reporter who worked on the case at the local newspaper – but all this really did was show journalists in an inhumane light, for a change.
One of the many reasons that I love reading is because of the way in which people tell stories. The choice of words, the structure, the perspective – I find it fascinating. What Skinner said and how he chose to spend the hour-long interview was no exception.
Skinner tells Herzog of when he was 23 minutes away from death. He was ‘five steps’ away from the gurney where he would be given the lethal injection when the phone rang to stop the execution from going ahead. He explained how he felt in such an intriguing way, I'm sure I'm not the only one who watched it with a lump in my throat. He then said how his elation soon turned to dread, as he realised he was going back to prison to carry on the wait.
Herzog acknowledges at the beginning of the film that he knows Skinner is fighting his innocence vehemently – yet he remains controlled throughout the interview.
His appearance is obviously a product of his difficult life for the last 17 years. But with his Southern accent and questionably coloured teeth – snobs like me who subconsciously judge on appearance wouldn’t expect him to talk so eloquently.
He talks about what he misses about the outside world in a way that you wouldn’t expect. He wistfully describes the pleasures of a washing machine, as in prison he has to hand wash his clothes, which has eroded away at his fingers. It makes you wonder what modest things we’d miss if we were in his situation – am I taking my washing machine for granted? He talks about the dreams he has of going round a supermarket and filling up his trolley, which is almost painful to watch. Most of us dream about food two days into a diet – his hunger for real food must be unimaginable.
On the other hand, he often sounds disconnected. He says that he is scared of the blackness, of the unknown that is inevitably his fate. Yet, there’s something melancholic about this side of him – the side that you could interpret as psychopathic. Several times throughout the interview he laughs manically. Perhaps this is just because he rarely gets to laugh?
He talks about when his daughter was a baby so hungrily, so passionately, as if he would do anything to bring the memory back to life. He talks in a way that you just know he wouldn’t be doing if he wasn’t on death row.
Hank comes across as affable, sensitive and endearing. The mark of a good documentary is one that silently pushes away doubts and prejudice, and presents to you a human in his rawest form that strips away any thoughts of what he may or may not have done 17 years ago. A fresh take on such a popular topic - well done, Werner.