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Guest Post from KCRW's Matt Holzman: From 'At The Death House Door' to 'Ministry of Presence'

By Matt Holzman

This is a guest post by Matt Holzman, host of KCRW's Matt's Movies and creator of The Business. Please read on to learn more about how Peter Gilbert's and Steve James' doc inspired a 1/2 hour radio show, which will air Friday, October 26 on KCRW's Unfictional.

I used to love loitering in the video store, rummaging aimlessly through the documentary section and coming across an intriguing-sounding film I'd never heard of. iTunes doesn't offer quite the same visceral joy of discovery, but at the end of the day I've unearthed a lot more great films that way.

And it was on one of those late-night, trance-like, remote-clicking jags that I came across Hoop Dreams'  Peter Gilbert's and Steve James' 2008 film At The Death House Door. What a joy to realize that you haven't seen a movie by some of your favorite filmmakers!

Death House is the powerful story of a "speak softly and carry a big bible" kind of Texas minister named Carroll Pickett. As the chaplain of the State Penitentiary at Huntsville for 15 years, he ministered to 95 inmates that died in the Texas death house.

Pickett is an amazing character and his story is one of subtle transformation. But there was something else. Those tapes.

In the wee hours after every execution, Pickett would go across the street to his house, sit down, turn on his little tape recorder and talk. He would describe what he'd seen in the particularly stoic-sounding drawl of an old Texas lawman. For the most part, it was just the facts, ma'am—but it is that clear-eyed recollection of events—both mundane and extraordinary—that make the tapes so riveting.

Of course, Gilbert and James could only include so much audio in their is, after all, a film. But I'm a radio guy, and I have no such limitation. For me, those tapes represented a deep vein of precious ore. They were a mother lode of rare audio, if you will. A radio-makers' dream. You cannot imagine my excitement at the thought of listening to them.

And so I worked up the nerve to call Steve—a complete stranger—and asked if we would help me convince Reverend Pickett to let me make a radio piece from the tapes. Pickett is cautious and conservative—he's had a lot of bad experiences with the press and the Texas prison people are not at all pleased with his anti-death penalty activism. But after working with him on what Pickett calls "our" documentary, he trusts James explicitly, and for reasons I still don't fathom, Steve indeed vouched for me. In the months since our original conference call, Pickett's said "If Steve James says you're ok, than I guess you must be OK..." about 1,000 times.

Reverend Pickett gave the green light to my project, and Zak Piper, Co-Producer on At The Death House Door at Kartemquin Films, sent tons of audio—I listened to about half of the tapes, some 30 hours in all. As I've said, they are largely unemotional; they lack the purple prose that has become associated with the "death house scene." But then again, most of the people writing those scenes have never attended a real execution, let alone 95 of them. And none of them has spent the day with the man about to be executed, getting to know him as a man.

The result is Ministry of Presence, a 1/2 hour radio doc that will air on KCRW's UnFictional this Friday at 7:30pm, repeated Tuesday at 2:30. You'll also be able to stream and podcast it on the show's site. I am very proud of the piece, which will air, not coincidentally, a few days before Californians vote on the death penalty. I am grateful to Carroll Pickett for putting his amazing story in my hands, and to Peter Gilbert and Steve James for making such an amazing film and helping make my piece possible. It makes me wonder why doc filmmakers and radio-makers don't work together more often!

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