Whether through the eyes of Swedish filmmakers in The Black Power Mixtape: 1967–1975 or Werner Herzog in Into the Abyss, foreign documentarians have time and again drawn new ideas out of American social and political problems. Jaap van Hoewijk went to Texas to make Killing Time, a narrowly focused portrait of that state’s use of the death penalty. The result is a many-voiced work with great emotional potency, some very striking images and a cohesiveness that pushes well beyond Herzog’s work on the same subject.
The case in question is that of Elroy Chester, a man convicted of the murder of five people. Van Hoewijk introduces him through his four sisters, all of them in different states of resignation and grief. Killing Time begins in the last days before the scheduled execution last June, pending only a final appeal to the Supreme Court. By then their brother had been on Death Row for 12 years. The 55-minute film is divided into two chapters: Crime and Punishment. Only one of Chester’s acts is addressed specifically. In 1998 he entered a private home with a mask and a gun. He proceeded to rape two teenage girls, and then murdered their uncle when he arrived at the house and attempted to intervene.
Van Hoewijk tells the story of the original crime and the subsequent punishment with the use of many voices. The sheer number of Chester’s sisters, along with their husbands and children, makes this kind of polyphony unavoidable. Yet their testimony is included alongside that of one of the victims. Erin DeLeon relays the story of her own rape and her uncle’s murder with a heartbreaking mix of careful reserve and raw emotion. Her own pain is evident, but so is the exhaustion of more than a decade of legal proceedings and media attention. The endless waiting has made her yet again a victim, as clearly as it has punished Chester’s family.
Chester himself, meanwhile, does not appear. Included in this broadly scoped film are the reporters who arrive to cover the day of his execution and even the gruff chief of police who oversaw the investigation, but not the murderer. In a strange way, Killing Time is not really about him, though everything within it is the direct result of his actions. A particularly telling scene is that of his final phone call to his family, all of them gathered in a nearby home maintained by a local church just for this purpose. We see each of his sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews exchange their final words with him. Their fatigue is only one element in the overall strangeness of this scene, a morbid tableau engineered by the state.
Finally, the rich images assembled here by Van Hoewijk drive this film home. The day of the execution, a tiny old woman with a giant hat and an enormous sign sits on a street corner. “HONK IF YOU OPPOSE THE DEATH PENALTY,” it says. Three pick-up trucks drive by in total silence. Later, the Chief of Police gruffly comments that they’ve finally “put the animal down,” while wearing a K-9 United jacket. These bold, layered images abound. And the strongest, perhaps, is that of the DeLeon family taking a celebratory photo. Erin is absent. “It’s hard to watch a person die,” she says, and she’s had to do it twice. Killing Time is a heavy film but it rises with its commitment to all of its subjects, voices elevated by their honesty and their number.