Time is good for the pardoning of bad behavior. Watch, for instance, the gripping investigation “Firing Squad,” documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s new film. Though the alarming tale of one wrongly convicted man’s run-in with the wrong correctional officials was captured by Ferguson and Ken Burns back in 2010, the examination of modern-day mass incarceration — the practice of locking up more people than have been in the country since U.S. seceded from the British Empire — has added such urgency in recent years.
In 1983, Ferguson co-directed “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” In 2007, he helmed “No End in Sight: The Roadmap to Victory in Iraq.” Both Fahrenheit 9/11 and “The Square” — a highly acclaimed Egyptian revolution documentary — bear his name. (“Inside Job,” in which Ferguson was co-director and producer, was named 2013’s Best Documentary Feature.) Now, he’s bringing another film to the screen.
Released three weeks before the Nov. 6 midterm elections, Ferguson’s Time documentary is a timely companion piece to his analysis of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and the surveillance saga of Edward Jay Epstein, a whistle-blower in the classic sense.
More accurately, they speak to the new truths about the American prison industrial complex: That the nation’s system of penal populism — which literally tears families apart, locks up young people and men, incarcerates the wealthy and wages trade war on poverty — produces an economic incentive to either toughen the laws or go easy on the offenders.
In an interview, Ferguson explains: “This is the way our laws work now. Our legislators, our judges and our probation officers, who are the organizers and traffic cops of our penal state, believe they can and they should be re-elected by going after the worst, leading the worst and sending the least…unless they step in there and stop it,” he says.
And to those politicians who act as nothing more than “somebody else’s beef.” Ferguson is referring to our dysfunctional species’ grudge system, “a way to make somebody else take responsibility for a bunch of your problems.” The Justice Department spends $70 billion every year “discovering and ensuring that under-equipped prisons are filled and overworked guards are vigilant. It’s basically part of the capitalist private-prison industry.”
Though the source material is all new and not swept up in the election mess, Ferguson knows how to give attention to a pain that isn’t going away. All that gung-ho rhetoric for mass incarceration changes into something chilling and frightening. Michael Seto, a California man who spent four years as a death row inmate, is among those profiled in the film. Suffering from a rare medical condition that left him in a vegetative state, the prime offender had his conviction vacated after his death sentence. The documentary says: “Under prison rules, the wishes of a dead man are subordinate to those of living ones.” Which is to say, Seto died in prison.
“Firing Squad” also gives attention to Gary Shaggs, wrongly imprisoned for four years for a 1989 murder in California and torn apart by a bond commissioner, who charged him with violent criminality when in fact his only acts had been attempting to protect women who were in danger of rape. That kind of justice is what Ferguson calls “unjust,” adding, “I know what happens when you bring anything less than equality to prisons… it leads to pointless revenge and just plain illegal cruelty.”
Armed with dramatic recreations, Ferguson combines recreating the real-life events with reconstructed interviews and drama-wise, his past film work is the blueprint, though it may take a few plays to find his fresh voice.
The key is to let him stew, change and ask questions. He explores what constitutes a crime, what constitutes punishment and weaves into the panorama several documentaries in recent years: “Renegade,” a film about the life of a white-supremacist cop, and, especially the recent “Free Angela & All Political Prisoners,” which linked her imprisonment to our war on terrorism. We watch the anti-government protest movement that blossomed in the days and years following America’s COINTELPRO intelligence and beatings campaign against African-Americans. “We kind of stumbled into revolution,” one activist says in “Free Angela.” Like Ferguson’s career, it was accidental, a decision to make nonfiction films after an incisive