I’m a documentary filmmaker and video journalist interested in shedding light on touchstone issues through intimate storytelling. The Sandman is a short documentary that profiles the doctor leading Georgia’s lethal injection team. The film unpacks why a doctor would defy medical ethics to participate in executions, highlighting the significance a white coat lends to executions, and how the public perception of lethal injection might perpetuate the practice of capital punishment.
Over the past decade, a series of botched executions have revealed the violence inherent in the lethal injection process – a method of execution that many consider to be the most humane form of capital punishment. In 2015, a group of Oklahoma death-row inmates challenged their planned executions arguing that one of the drugs in the state’s three-drug protocol would lead to an unconstitutional amount of suffering. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the execution method stating that the inmates needed to offer a viable alternative form of execution. For me, this case highlighted the contradictory nature of using medicine for executions. As I looked into it, I discovered that while lethal injections use the tools of medicine, the procedures vary from state to state and the methods are fairly unscientific. I wanted to understand how medicine came to be used in this way, and why a medical professional would assist in state executions.
Dr. Musso is one of the only medical professionals willing to publicly discuss his participation. For him, the death sentence is akin to a terminal illness. He sees his role as simply ensuring that the execution is done properly to avoid the unbearable pain of a lethal injection gone wrong. However, in our conversations, he also conceded that the mere practice of lethal injection gives the public a sense of humaneness that other forms of execution do not. By bringing doctors and nurses into the execution chamber, executions become sanitized in a way.
While I did not set out to make an advocacy film, I do hope that The Sandman encourages viewers to think critically about lethal injections and state-sanctioned executions. More than anything, I want to lay bare a criminal punishment that is too often shrouded in secrecy.
While there are several films that focus on the death sentence and questions surrounding guilt and innocence, there are few that deal directly with the protocol itself. In fact, I have not yet seen a film that explores the use of medicine as an executioner’s tool.
This was an extremely difficult film for me to make. The subject matter was clearly dark and it was a real challenge to engage with it in such a deep way for a year. As a filmmaker, I had to juggle my obligation to the person I was filming, to the audience, and to the truth as best as I could see it. As filmmakers, we wield a great deal of power in the edit room. I cut 5 or 6 different versions of this film before I felt that I had the right balance — allowing Dr. Musso’s point of view to clearly come through, but also creating a space where viewers can question the larger system.
In December, we observe Universal Human Rights Month in honor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international document adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. The Universal Declaration states basic rights and fundamental freedoms to which all human beings are entitled, including freedom from discrimination, the right to equality, and the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, originally made by Stuart Schulberg for the US Department of War in 1948 and remastered by his daughter Sandra Schulberg in recent years, shows the trial that established the “Nuremberg Principles,” providing the foundation for all subsequent trials for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
In The Reckoning, by Paco de Onis and Pamela Yates, prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo faces down warlords, genocidal dictators and world superpowers in his struggle to bring perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice. The Sandman, by Lauren Knapp, is a documentary short about Dr. Carlo Musso, a physician who has overseen Georgia’s lethal injection team since 2003, and his own moral equivocation providing “end of life care” to prisoners while personally opposing capital punishment. See these and other films about Human Rights here.
Following the festival and broadcast premiere of Visitor’s Day, Nicole Opper’s film about an innovative group home for formerly homeless boys in Mexico, there was a private screening held for executives at Volkswagen in Mexico, which subsequently raised one million dollars toward the construction of a home for formerly homeless girls two miles away – the first of its kind in the country. Just like the original IPODERAC (Instituto Poblano de Readaptación) home for boys featured in the film, this new home will provide housing, food, education and counseling for 72 vulnerable youth from all over Mexico. It will open its doors in February 2019 – fifty years after the institute was founded.
The University of North Carolina, Charlotte invited Ellen Brodsky’s film, The Year We Thought About Love, and three of the film’s LGBTQ youth to their annual OUTSPOKEN event in October. There was a moving Q&A afterwards. The discussion covered the importance of safe places and one of the film’s youth said, “Our theater troupe ’True Colors’, was the place we shed the faces we wore throughout the day.” Some people applauded, others shifted in their seats, and some may have even shifted their perceptions. One student chose to publicly thank them on the film’s Facebook page for bringing this “incredible documentary” to their campus. Brodsky and her team are working to make spaces safer, one screening at a time.
From L to R: Former chief executioner Jerry Givens with filmmakers Maggie Burnette Stogner and Rick Stack at the International Social Change “ChangeFest” Festival in Los Angeles, Nov. 10, 2018.
In the Executioner’s Shadow by Maggie Burnette Stogner and Rick Stack is a catalyst for conversation and action, stirring debate about criminal justice reform at festivals and grassroots screenings across the country. The filmmakers recently brokered a partnership with The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in order to promote a strategic roll-out of community screenings, discussion and call-to-action. Audiences are asked to organize additional screenings in their homes and communities, creating a word-of-mouth momentum to overturn capital punishment. In addition, anti-death penalty coalitions in Pennsylvania and Oregon are launching statewide efforts at town hall meetings. In the Executioner’s Shadow will be the centerpiece of their legislative campaigns to help rally citizen support to sway state legislators.
4. New Day’s Earliest Films
In 2018, some of some of New Day’s earliest films – by New Day founders Amalie R. Rothschild, Liane Brandon, Julia Reichert, Jim Klein – were featured as “groundbreaking feminist films” by separate screening series at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Barbican Theatre in London, and UnionDocs in New York. Each respective series focused on the artistry, advocacy, and innovation of the early feminist films and filmmakers that gave birth to New Day Films as the thriving co-op it is today.
To mark the 10th year since the passage of Proposition 8 in California – the 2008 law passed by California voters banning same-sex marriage – filmmaker Christie Herring held a special screening of The Campaign in San Francisco. The film follows the people behind California’s historic No-on-8 campaign to defend same-sex marriage through exclusive behind the scenes footage, interwoven with the national history of same-sex relationship recognition since the 1950s. After the screening, veteran activists and organizers had a powerful conversation about current risks for the LGBT community, ways to cultivate a sustainable movement, and the impact of Prop 8 on the LGBT movement and the country.
Pam Sporn screened her film Detroit 48202: Conversations Along a Postal Route in Professor David Goldberg’s “The Black Worker in US History” course at Wayne State University. A mixture of black and white, as well as older and younger students engaged in a powerful discussion about historical memory and perspective. Some students shared memories of once vibrant neighborhoods decimated by urban renewal while others said they gained a new understanding of the structural racism that impacted Detroit once they moved from the suburbs to study in the city.
Director, Joel Fendelman and Producer, James Chase Sanchez screened their film Man on Fire in Salt Lake City for Clearlink Media, a marketing company, and hosted a one hour workshop at the company’s headquarters on “Implicit Bias.” They used clips from the film to teach attendees about the various forms of bias that might appear in the workplace.
Joan Mandell screened excerpts from Gaza Ghetto: Portrait of a Palestinian Family in October at the Oral History Association conference at Concordia University in Montreal. Now 35 years old, Gaza Ghetto, was the first documentary to record scenes of Palestinian daily life impacted by the rule of Israeli-occupation in Gaza. Shown within the context of the 70th anniversary of Palestinian displacement and exile, the film was a revelation for a new generation of students. Audience members said that the first-hand discussion about the risks and rewards of filmmaking in difficult circumstances was an inspiration for their own documentary and oral history work.
Lauren Knapp recently participated in a live webinar with The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She screened selected clips from The Sandman and moderated a conversation with Dr. Jonathan Groner, a nationally recognized voice opposing lethal injection. The Sandman continues to contribute to a much-needed conversation about the use of medicine in executions.
Drawn Together: Comics, Diversity and Stereotypes, directed by Harleen Singh screened at dozens of festivals around the world during which the filmmaker had a chance to see and hear the audience shift their opinions about diversity and stereotypes. The note below – received by Harleen at a screening – summarizes the kinds of audience experiences her film continues to foster.