A documentary that peers into the final months of a borderline-retarded murderer, The Execution of Wanda Jean shifts between the emotionally charged hopes of a condemned woman’s loved ones and the cold, practically invisible dictates of Oklahoma, which lethally injected eight prisoners in January 2001. In 1988, Wanda Jean Allen fatally shot her estranged girlfriend, Gloria Leathers, in a police station parking lot. Embarrassed by the fact that Wanda Jean, an African American, had been convicted of a prior murder but served less than four years, the state sought the death penalty, and got it.
Execution begins over a decade later, as Allen’s defense team preps her to face the parole and pardon board. Filmmaker Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA) rarely engages directly with her subjects, choosing instead to let the ticking-clock tension speak for itself. The film focuses on the legal team’s clemency case, which takes Wanda Jean’s crimes as a given. For the defense, this is strategic: To make excuses for murders committed would dilute their streamlined argument that Allen’s death-penalty trial omitted evidence of her extensive psychological problems. For the film, however, this presents a number of nagging gaps. Garbus barely touches on Allen’s relationship to Leathers, which hovers silently on Execution‘s mute horizon. We learn nothing about the first murder, or about Allen’s daily prison life. These absences have a flattening effect on Allen, preventing the film from looking beyond the Christian hopefulness that dominates her final days.
But in the end, Execution achieves a torturous, race-against-time desperation. Against a well-captured background of extended-family grief, the film inflates with optimism and then helplessly watches the state squeeze the air out. As Allen’s execution date closes in, the documentary gives an especially poignant portrait of her friendship with the never flagging legal investigator David Presson. For all his chin-up attitude, he slowly comes apart, sweating, sighing, laughing uncontrollably at Allen’s good-natured faith that all will end well. After Allen’s execution, Presson claims that “she went out like a champ.” Such empty reassurance only highlights the pointlessness of her death.
While Execution explores societal problems through the story of a handful of people, the unfortunately titled The Burning Sensation levels its critique of modern culture via its representation of an entire city, namely Black Rock, Nevada, a desert site where thousands of people flock together for a week every year to build a “different America.” Whatever the Burning Man festival achieves, on film it looks like a bunch of body-painted, semi-free spirits in various states of undress banging on drums, dancing, and burning stuff. Things set on fire include a sculpture of a penis, a human being (presumably in a protective suit), and a taxidermied horse, the burning of which represents, purportedly, “losing a father.”
Meanwhile, talking heads attempt to explain the festival’s relevance. One organizer calls the event “a gallery for the most unique art event in the world,” but the film undermines this when it showcases a New Age, bubble-blowing installation bearing the themes “hope, wish, pray, dream.” As predictable as a segment of MTV Spring Break, which at least doesn’t try to hide its voyeurism, Burning looks more like a travel-agency video targeted at people who like to ride bikes topless and roll in the mud than a worthwhile glimpse of independent-community guiding lights.
A work of grimmer voyeurism, Steven Rosenbaum’s 7 Days in September (opens September 6; at AMMI September 7 and 8) compiles several bystanders’ video-camera footage of the WTC attack and its aftermath. The interviews occasionally veer into it-seemed-like-a-dream cliché, and the eerie soundtrack doesn’t help. But at times the unpolished approach earns a rare complexity. The filmmaker who’s honest enough to say he disliked the WTC gives the most emotional response to the destruction. Overall, 7 Days approximates the actual horror better than most of the repetitive news coverage that followed.