Peter Gilbert and Steve James make films that break your heart, yet their work is not remotely sensationalistic or manipulative. They will be forever known as the Hoop Dreams duo, but that powerful, hugely successful, career-making landmark was the result of four years of sweat and toil, and rigorous sociological observation. Their 2003 effort, Stevie, was a more personal film, and was no less shattering.
They're at it again, with what at first appears to be an issue-oriented film about the death penalty in Texas and a prison chaplain who accompanied more than 90 condemned men to their deaths in a Huntsville prison.
"We don't make 'cause' films," Gilbert says, speaking alongside James in a hotel lounge in Austin, Texas, where they were showing their film at South by Southwest. And James concurs—"I've never marched against the death penalty ... I just always knew I was against it."
Indeed, the film is not about "the death penalty," but about how the death penalty creates more victims, including the surviving family of the condemned, the prison workers and finally, those charged with the duty of providing spiritual counseling. Although the film follows two Chicago Tribune reporters as they exonerate a wrongly executed man named Carlos DeLuna, the film focuses on the last man DeLuna saw as he died, the Rev. Carroll Pickett, a stolid Baptist minister whose once-unquestioning support for capital punishment evolved into opposition.
Pickett is a man who was taught to be strong and self-contained, yet he needed an outlet for the crushing burden of his job. Unbeknownst to anyone, including his own family, Pickett began keeping audio diaries to accompany each execution, describing the picayune details of state murder carefully and clinically. His tape recorder became his confessor and therapist. These tapes form a crucial narrative line in the film.
Despite the emotional power of the film that links it to his earlier work with Gilbert, James notes that the form of the new film, which recounts past events, was a challenge because their earlier work unfolded in the present, in what Gilbert calls "longitudinal filmmaking."
"We were fascinated by a strong, stoic man who was damaged by what he went through," Gilbert says. "He ministers to the warden, to the guards, but no one ministers to him."
Sitting down after Gilbert and James leave, Carroll Pickett is surprisingly relaxed—and ready to talk basketball. Upon learning that I'm from North Carolina, we discuss the recent UNC men's victory over Duke. It turns out he also follows the women, and he offers thoughts on former Duke coach Gail Goestenkors' first season at the University of Texas.
Pickett devotes his time working on behalf of the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty and other groups. Pickett finds receptive audiences despite Texas' official enthusiasm for the death penalty (Texas has now executed more than 400 men and women—152 of the death warrants were signed by then-Gov. George W. Bush). Still, he says with a wry laugh, "the old-timers raised in the Wild West of Texas—you can't change their minds."
Firmly and quietly, he talks about his role in wrongful executions. "Several I know were innocent, and the state knows they were innocent," he says. "And 15 of them [though complicit in crime] didn't pull the trigger," but were sentenced to death anyway due to the state's reliance on snitches.
Pickett admits he was initially wary of the two filmmakers from Chicago. "It was new territory, but they won my heart and my brain," he says. "They probed areas I hadn't explored for years."
Gilbert, James and Pickett will be present for the screening of At the Death House Door. Gilbert and James also contributed to the seven-hour, multi-part documentary about the immigrant experience called The New Americans, which is being shown twice at the festival starting at 10:45 a.m. Friday, in Cinema Two.