Local film takes viewers to execution

Kenner man won't say whether it's real
Monday, April 09, 2007
By Gwen Filosa
Staff writer

Steven Scaffidi won't divulge everything about his new film that tracks a condemned man's route to the electric chair.

"Execution," which premieres Tuesday night at McAlister Auditorium on the Tulane University campus, is a 90-minute tale of the ultimate punishment. Advertised as containing footage of a real electrocution -- recorded years ago by hidden cameras that two filmmakers stashed in a death chamber -- the movie is meant to be mysterious as to what is real and what is manufactured drama.

"I'm not trying to be evasive," Scaffidi, 50, said last week at a Harahan coffee shop. "Is it real? I think that's what the audience can decide. At the end of the day, you're going to know what's real and what's dramatized."

The New Orleans native said he wants the viewer to absorb the depiction of the death penalty in vivid detail.

"My goal is to take the audience and put them on the front row of an execution," he said. "This story is a myth. Parts are real and not real."

"Execution" follows two filmmakers determined to capture an execution in a Southern state, and stars a former Mississippi prison warden who presided over executions, a former chaplain at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola who counseled convicts during their last breaths, and a man who spent 16 years on death row, Scaffidi said.

In the film, the three men play the roles they served out in real life. William Neil Moore is the "condemned man" in the script, reliving his all-too-real experience on Georgia's death row until the state parole board commuted his sentence to life in 1990, according to the film's press kit.

Spared after relatives of his victim pleaded for clemency, Moore today is a free man who works as a preacher in Rome, Ga.

"No one is beyond redemption, even people on death row," Moore likes to say when he speaks across the country on the subject.

Donald Cabana, the former warden at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, appears in the film as "the warden," while the Rev. Joel LaBauve is "the priest," having earned the role by spending six years at Angola ministering to doomed convicts.

All three will host a panel discussion after Tuesday's screening.

Six years in the making, "Execution" isn't meant to change anyone's opinion on the legal ritual, Scaffidi said. "The film is not going to make a statement."

The film is not for anyone under 17 years old, he said, and he shrugs off any suggestion that "Execution" is an exploitation of the grim topic.

Who is his target audience?

"Anybody who has an opinion about prison life and the death row," he said. "Is it right? Is it wrong?"

Scaffidi made headlines with his 2006 documentary "Forgotten on the Bayou," which chronicles Hurricane Katrina survivor Rockey Vaccarella, who after riding out the storm on his roof, decided to tow his FEMA trailer to Washington, D.C., to have dinner with President Bush.

"I set the whole thing up," he said of Vaccarella's Oval Office trek, yet another film from his Ghost Rider Pictures company that he started in 1990.

His previous works include "The People's Story," a documentary about survivors of Hurricane Mitch's wrath in Honduras, which he said was a finalist for the 2000 Academy Awards, but didn't receive a nomination.

The University of New Orleans graduate has spent almost a lifetime making movies -- he made his first as a 10-year-old with a Super 8 camera. About 15 years ago, Scaffidi met up with a condemned inmate while working on a film segment for an HBO special. He couldn't come up with the convict's name the other day, but he remembers that after spending time with the inmate, Scaffidi's emotions ranged from revulsion to pity.

"I hated him," Scaffidi said of the murderer. But after following him all the way to his state-sponsored death, the filmmaker found himself crying after the man's execution. "I cried and I found that struggle within myself. Feeling sorry for a killer."

Scaffidi said he has conflicted feelings about the death penalty. "I flip-flop," he said.

These days, Scaffidi, who grew up in Carrollton and Lakeview before his family moved to Kenner, is a full-time filmmaker, settled back in Kenner with a wife and three children, ages 20, 18 and 14, all of whom Scaffidi plans to take to Tuesday's screening.

But he's still not answering every question about "Execution," including whether the condemned man is based on a real convict, or where exactly the "hidden" footage came from.

"One day we will, but not now," he said. "Let the film play."

The premiere of "Execution" is sponsored by the Tulane University Criminal Law Society. Admission is free. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the film begins at 7 p.m.

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Gwen Filosa can be reached at gfilosa@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3304.

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