Thursday, March 15, 2012

Not Reality, Actuality

Prison documentaries happen all the time in America. Like, all the time. MSNBC is notorious for knocking off for the weekend and just airing prison documentaries every week, refusing to come back to work for anything less than the death of a major celebrity. But typically the documentaries boil down to general life inside prison- the gang culture, the constant edginess, the efforts by the cops to keep control, etc.

Death row, however, is a pretty lightly-visited topic. You don't see too many death row documentaries. When you do, you're likely to hear about the build-up to the moment of execution, the goodbyes, any efforts at pardons or stays of execution, any nearby protests against the death penalty, and pretty much everything about the process except footage of the actual execution. It is invariably a one-time thing; a Very Special prison documentary.

(Contrast to TruTV, formerly CourtTV, which now, instead of the legal process, primarily concerns itself with stupid people, Wipeout, and reality shows consisting of re-enactments of things you'd see if there were an actual reality show going on.)

Then there's China, where the Henan Legal Channel- a regional channel- just wrapped up a five year run of the show 'Interviews Before Execution'. This is exactly what it sounds like. The host, Ding Yu, will take a condemned prisoner about to face execution- sometimes literally just about to face execution, as in they will go straight from the interview to the execution itself- and she will conduct an interview about it. The interviews go about as you'd expect them to go when the subject is always someone staring down the barrel of execution: pretty intensely emotional. (On occasion, one of the subjects would get a pardon and have their sentence commuted to what amounts to a life sentence.)

It was put on the air for the same reason you see bait-car videos here: as a deterrent. At least, that's the line from China. But it seems not to have stood up to very much international scrutiny. Once the BBC and PBS came out with a documentary about the show entitled "Dead Men Talking"- which has actually yet to air- and once the show picked up notice as a result by news organizations outside Chinese borders, all of a sudden Interviews Before Execution ran into "internal problems" and was abruptly cancelled.

Knowledge of the show has also spurred something of a guessing game in trying to determine how many people are executed in China every year. They're the only country, North Korea included, that doesn't release their numbers or at least try to claim a certain count. All anyone is sure of is that the number ranges in the thousands, miles ahead of anyone else. What happened was, people calculated the number of interviews (226), the tenure of the show (five years), and the region involved (Henan Province), and started trying to figure out how many executions that works out to nationwide (even taking into account that not all prisoners on death row were likely to have been interviewed). Which, and this is pure speculation, might have been one of those "internal problems". They aren't releasing the numbers, but the show gave outsiders an opportunity to start counting.

And that might be a little more reality television than China was counting on.

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