Fear and Loathing on Death Row

Forty-eight-year-old filmmaker Fabrice Ziolkowski is a lot more American than you might guess. Although he was born in France, he grew up in Canada before moving to Florida at age 12. After graduating from high school there, he headed to California, studying film at UC Santa Barbara and obtaining a master's degree in comparative literature at UCLA.

In 1985, Ziolkowski returned to France, where he has worked as a screenwriter for films, television series and children's animation shows. He has also directed documentaries about everything from Chicago and LA to the U.S. prison industry, modern dance in France and Africa, and the oral art of storytelling. He has also been a longtime member of the human-rights group Amnesty International, which is how he came to correspond with a Texas death-row inmate named David Hicks.

The pair corresponded for three years; their evolving relationship became the core of his latest documentary, Death Letters, which explores the death penalty in Texas. The film has been critically praised and picked up in 13 European countries, but it has received no interest from American television outlets or film distributors. So, for the past three weeks, Ziolkowski has been showing Death Letters at universities across the U.S.; it makes its Southern California premiere in UC Irvine's Film and Video Center on Thursday, March 13. We caught up with Ziolkowski shortly before he screened his film at UC Santa Barbara.

OC Weekly: What motivated you to do this movie? Fabrice Ziolkowski: My motivation is to get Americans to at least discuss the issue of the death penalty, looking at it closely from all sides. For French viewers (and Europeans in general), my motive was to get them to understand the reasons why it was abolished in all of Europe. Do you believe the death penalty is racist?

The death penalty is not racist per se: it operates within a class-justice system. Black, white or brown, almost all the folks on death row are poor. Of course, most poor folks in the U.S. are black or brown, so . . .

What's the main point about the death penalty you want to communicate?

My main point is that the death penalty is an important moral issue, which needs to be put out in the open and discussed—and that something needs to be done about it.

Did making the film change your thinking about the death penalty? If so how?

The film did not change my mind about the death penalty. It confirmed what I already felt was true.

Do you think the death penalty will ever be overturned in the U.S.?

The death penalty could one day be abolished in the U.S., but it's going to be a long, hard road, demanding some clear leadership from someone courageous and unafraid to buck majority public opinion—like the governor of Illinois, who declared a moratorium on the death penalty.

What about Texas?

I believe the death penalty would and should be overturned from a federal point of view, so Texas would therefore have to comply.

What has the reaction been to your film in both France and around the U.S.?

There has been a good reaction in France, especially on TV, in the form of good reviews and the like. Thanks to that reception, 12 other countries have bought the show. But it's never shown in the U.S. and has not been picked up by American TV. So this tour represents a series of first screenings on U.S. soil.

Speaking of France, what do French people think about Americans who criticize their country for not supporting a war against Iraq?

I would say that when French people hear Americans criticize them for their stand on Iraq, they think basically: it figures. What else would you expect? America stands for no criticism from anywhere else in the world, so . . .

Death Letters screens at UC Irvine's Film and Video Center, 24 Humanities Instructional Building, Room 100, Campus and W. Peltason drives, Irvine, (949) 824-7418. Thurs., March 13, 7:30 p.m. $3-$5.

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