Any last words before you die?
This is the basic concept of a unique reality show in the Chinese province of Henan entitled “Interviews Before Execution”. Catering to the macabre fascination humans have for death, its audience of forty million viewers makes it one of the most watched programmes in the province.
China has never kept its faith in the effectiveness of the death penalty a secret. Fifty-five crimes carry the death penalty, and it is estimated that there are thousands of executions per year (statistics are, however, one thing that China does keep secret).
Dead Men Talking is directed by Robin Newell and follows Ding Yu, the presenter and producer of “Interviews Before Execution”, as she interviews prisoners on death row about the circumstances of their crimes and how the knowledge of their impending death affects them, sometimes just minutes before their sentences are carried out.
All of the interviewees always seem remorseful; one even says he is “in agony”, as if death would be a welcome relief. Ding Yu comments that at the end of the interview, they become calm because they have said their piece.
However, the general manager of the channel that the programme airs on feels that the show is a great concept due to their social responsibility to warn people of the consequences of their crimes, as opposed to decrying the unjust nature of the death penalty and showcasing the plight of their families. This, in fact, is one of the government’s main objects of the death penalty- deterrence. En route to their execution, prisoners are made to wear a placard stating their crime in an open truck for all to see.
A main focus of the documentary is the emotional effect the show has on Ding Yu herself. Out of journalistic principle, she never treats her interview subjects like criminals and says that whenever she feels sympathy, she reminds herself of their crimes. However, certain people stand out in her mind.
Death row inmate Bao Rongting asks her name. He says he asked her because he respects everyone, as they are all human beings. It is later revealed he was convicted of killing his mother and raping her dead body, despite his open homosexuality. As he is being led to his execution, he asks her if he’s going to heaven. Before prisoners are executed, they have to sign a paper testifying that all the facts of their crime are correct, perversely signing their own death warrant. Moments before his execution, he asks to shake her hand but she merely brushes one finger over his palm, conflicted about what to do in front of a homosexual and someone about to take their last breath.
A scene of Ding Yu and her crew choosing livestock and fish, which are slaughtered and packaged for their next meal, juxtaposes his execution. In the market, a little girl recognizes Ding Yu from her show, indicating the normalcy of he death penalty in China.
Dead Men Talking is a unique and educational look at the death penalty and its consequences in a country that takes an alternative view to our own Western society. Although many of the subjects and their families are very emotional, the objective nature of the documentary is well preserved.
*Screening at the Documentary Edge Festival 2012
Fri 27/4 12.45pm – EC Tue 1/5 5.45pm – EC Tue 8/5 5.15pm – EC Wed 9/5 7.30pm – EC
Fri 18/5 12.45pm – RC Tue 22/5 6.00pm – RC Wed 30/5 5.45pm – RC