2000 Sigma Delta Chi Awards: Documentaries

By Collison, Dan | The Quill, June 2001 | Go to article overview

2000 Sigma Delta Chi Awards: Documentaries


Collison, Dan, The Quill


DOCUMENTARIES

Respect is a key element

Legend has it that certain Native American tribes didn't want their picture taken. They thought the camera would steal part of their soul.

Journalists have been stealing pieces of people's souls for years. It's not malicious, but it happens, particularly in the case of documentaries where producers spend lots of time with their "subjects.' We producers get people to reveal the innermost details of their lives, take those details back to our studios, organize them in a way that hopefully makes some sense, and put the story on the air.

Then, having become intimately involved with these people, in many cases we never talk with them again. We may mean to get back to them. We might promise to send them a tape, but, more times than not, we forget and the person ends up feeling betrayed or abandoned.

That's the reason that what happened after I completed my latest documentary was so satisfying. The documentary, "Learning to Live: James' Story," is about the transition of an ex-offender from prison to the free world. After getting released from prison, James came to live at St. Leonard's, a halfway house for ex-offenders in Chicago. James stayed with the program and "graduated" with honors, having "learned to live" in the outside world.

After co-writing and then narrating the documentary, James returned to St. Leonard's house a few months later for the premiere of our documentary. About 75 people turned out - members of the press, James' family and friends, St. Leonard's staff members and 20 or so other ex-offenders. We all crammed into a couple of rooms and listened.

When it was over, James got a standing ovation. Fellow ex-offenders stood and said how much James' story had moved them. It was like a 12-step meeting broke out; more and more ex-offenders testified recounting their stories, explaining how hard they are working to stay clean and telling James that he's an inspiration.

Producers don't have to become friends with every person they do a documentary on. But when we ask people like James to open their lives to us - in effect, to give us a bit of their soul - we might want be careful not to rush off to our next story so quickly. The trust and, in some cases, the friendship that can result by staying in touch might last long after the radio documentary is forgotten.

AWARD WINNER

DOCUMENTARIES - RADIO

David Isay and Stacy Abramson

Sound Portraits Production

Witness to an Execution

I've walked out of the death chamber numb and my legs feeling like rubber sometimes, my head not really feeling like it's attached to my shoulders. I've been told it's perfectly normal - everyone feels it - and after awhile that numb feeling goes away. And indeed it does.

Leighanne Gideon, a former reporter for The Huntsville (Texas) Item and witness to 52 executions, is one of 11 voices heard in Sound Portraits Productions' "Witness to an Execution" Originally broadcast on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," the program takes the listener through the approximately 25-minute process of a lethal injection execution at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Explaining the process are prison employees and reporters - those whose jobs included either their participation in or witnessing of executions in the busiest death chamber in the United States.

"The warden will remove his glasses, which is the signal to the executioners behind a mirrored glass window," explains John Moritz, a reporter with the Fort Worth Star Telegram, who is featured in the program. "And when the glasses come off, the lethal injection begins to flow."

It took nearly a year for documentary producers Stacy Abramson and Dave Isay to gain the unprecedented access and trust of the prison staff to create this documentary. Most of the men and women in the program had never been interviewed before, including former prison guard Fred Allen, who suffered a mental breakdown after participating in about 120 executions. …

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