Netflix docu-series I Am a Killer's earnest intent to humanise convicts is marred by uninspired directorial choices

Anupam Kant Verma

Sep,02 2018 15:28:49 IST

A few years back I came across an ominous sounding book titled Last Words of the Executed lying half-hidden on a bookstore shelf. My interest piqued as I started browsing through its contents. It compiled the last words of people who were sentenced to death under the American penal system. By turns moving, funny and befuddling, it provided a humane window into the minds of those considered worthy of being forgotten by civilised society. To this day it remains among the handful of books — not currently in my possession — that I finished during a single sitting at the store itself. Mind you, it ran to about 300 printed pages.

So when I alighted upon I Am a Killer, a series recently acquired by Netflix, and read through its description, I instantly added it to my watch-list. Death row inmates given a once in a lifetime chance to provide their version of the story of their lives seemed like a natural extension of the book.

A still from I Am a Killer. Netflix

A still from I Am a Killer. Netflix

Directed by multiple filmmakers, IAAK’s first season comprises ten hour-long episodes delving into the lives of one person each. By and large, every episode sticks to the same structure: the convicted person tells his story to the camera for the first few minutes, usually detailing the events of the crime that led his to his sentencing. This is followed by interviews with persons affected by the crime or those close to the convict. Lastly, the convict is brought back in front of the camera to sum up the entire story.

The most glaring flaw in the series ought to be the unnecessary reconstructions of the crimes. They do not appear for more than a few minutes. But they distract from the overall realism of the film. Often grossly scored and abhorrently shot, IAAK could have benefited greatly from getting rid of them altogether. Worst of all, they run over the convicts’ opening telling of their crimes. The immersion that takes place as soon as we find ourselves in the presence of people — whom we would like to believe — we would never wish to meet in real life vanishes as soon as the reconstructions begin. The filmmakers’ earnest intent to humanise these convicts is severely injured by this uninspired directorial decision. On a more basic storytelling plane, it hampers the narrative’s pacing. Finally, the moment we feel we are getting closer and closer to the soft core underlying the hard bark of these peoples’ crimes, the thread is broken.

Fortunately, the final section of the episodes serves to make up for this folly. This is where the show turns into a truly moving experience. We witness men who’ve spent their entire lives behind bars breaking into tears or trying hard to keep a straight face, battling the desperation that threatens to unmoor them. These are men who know that their fate has been decided for them by powers way beyond their reach. They await their final call. The enormity of the helplessness that capital punishment engenders, weighs upon every single word they speak. A helplessness most of us cannot begin to fathom.

But the filmmakers do not forget to provide counter narratives. We hear from victims’ families. People who support the sentence handed down to our protagonists get their moments in front of the camera. So do the few people who knew the convicts. While this middle section could have been edited more fluidly, it doesn’t always fail in its purpose to give a more rounded view of the events that led to the crime. The pace can sometimes be plodding. But the overall effect, barring the few distractions, is of an earnest attempt at objectivity.

I Am a Killer’s ten episodes should not be watched in one go. Not because they can’t be. But because these individual stories, in this author’s opinion, should be allowed to linger in the mind. Some of these men have been behind bars for so long that the world that we so take for granted can appear alien to them. These are what some of us would want to call 'wasted lives'. Not always by their own design. They got a raw deal in their childhoods, which seems to be a common thread to most of the stories. Broken and scarred, they sometimes fell victim to their most despicable impulses. Their lives often even turned on a single phrase or choice. Some of them might even be innocent. The sheer magnitude of a human life, especially one so unfortunately curtailed by the nature of human laws, deserves more responsible viewing.

So while I Am a Killer is not always a brilliant show, its concept suffices to make it necessary viewing. Approach it with your thinking hat on and it can be quite rewarding.

Updated Date: Sep 02, 2018 15:30 PM