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SCREENING ROOM

'Lost,' '769': Two Views of Death in Prison

July 01, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival continues tonight at 7 at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., with two new documentary features, Jim Chambers' "Lost in Mississippi" and Jaap van Hoewijk's "Procedure 769."

The first is a kind of film journal of Georgia-born Chambers' recent travels through Mississippi to find out what's happening in this most conservative of Southern states, and to investigate one of the approximately 50 apparent suicides of jail or prison inmates that have occurred in Mississippi since 1987. Chambers never does get a satisfactory answer about the death of a young black man up for parole. Not only does his family insist that he had everything to live for, but also points out that he frequently made it clear to friends and relatives, both in writing and conversation, that he truly feared for his life at the Parchman penitentiary. (Suicides were nearly evenly divided between blacks and whites.)

Chambers also becomes acquainted with a young woman, who was briefly a police officer before turning prison reform activist, and her mother, who is part of a rural lesbian commune frequently targeted by the religious right. As a Southerner, Chambers has a real feel for the place and its people, which include a charismatic renegade fresh out of prison. The rambling yet revealing "Lost in Mississippi" is, in fact, as leisurely as the pace of life there, and you may find your attention wandering from time to time. As to whether Mississippi is actually changing, Chambers gets his answer early on. When a black girl is asked if it is and replies yes, her friend swiftly adds, "A little."

Far more compelling is "Procedure 769," which outlines step-by-step the course of the April 1994 execution of Robert Alton Harris in San Quentin's gas chamber, the first time it had been used in 25 years. Van Hoewijk cuts back and forth between 11 of the nearly 50 witnesses to the execution. In 1978, Harris and his brother kidnapped two San Diego youths along with stealing their car, which they needed to flee from a bank robbery. Ironically, one of the officers arresting the Harris brothers did not learn until later that Robert Harris had slain his 16-year-old son and his son's friend.

"Procedure 769" is as relentlessly economical as it is compelling. Van Hoewijk resists taking a position on the death penalty and also letting us know the full extent of the terrible family life Harris had experienced growing up. Only the mother and sister of one of Harris' victims and the policeman father of the other witnessed the execution calmly and with a sense of justice at last vindicated.

Most everyone else testifies as to what a horrible experience it was, even though surely they were all appalled at Harris' coldblooded killings of the two youths who had stopped at a Jack-in-the-Box on the way to a summer's day of fishing. Among them are Harris' brother Randall, who rose above his upbringing, and Harris' cousin, the Rev. Leon Harris, who learned from his mother of his relationship to the killer only after Robert's arrest. Leon Harris nevertheless unhesitatingly became Robert's spiritual advisor, recognizing his duty as a devout Christian to both Robert and his victims.

A sister of one of the victims is also a devout Christian and, as such, sees that she ought to forgive him. But she is honest enough to admit that she may never be able to, no matter how hard she tries. "Procedure 769" complements "Dead Man Walking" and, if anything, is more rigorous; it could easily have been twice as long but not necessarily twice as good. In its detachment and spareness, it actually does ask the viewer to think for himself. The festival continues with more films through Wednesday. (310) 553-9036, Ext. 320.

*

Animation Fest: The highlight of "Spike and Mike's 1996 Festival of Animation" (at the Nuart Thursday for one week) is Nick Park's Oscar-winning, 30-minute Claymation "The Wrong Trousers," an inspired and amusing continuation of the adventures of the pompous inventor Wallace and his devoted dog Gromit, seen previously in "A Close Shave." The festival is of good quality but lacks variety and is too long. (310) 478-6379.

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