Native Portlander makes good at Sundance

Local film
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 6, 2008
UNCLEAR CHOICES: The condemned man and the warden.

Don’t watch The Execution of Solomon Harris expecting a treatise about the death penalty. It’s true that the eight-minute film is a taut, disturbing glimpse into a truly nightmarish situation: an electric chair execution gone awry. But soapbox cinema it isn’t.

Co-directed by New Hampshire native Ed Yonaitis and Portlander Wyatt Garfield, the narrative short “raises questions and provides no answers,” Garfield writes in an e-mail to the Phoenix. “And we don’t push any political opinions.”

Instead, the directors decided to zoom in on the prison warden, and on his job responsibility — death.

“Many people think about capital punishment on political terms, without realizing or beholding the enormity of its implementation,” says the 22-year-old Garfield, who currently lives in Portland, Oregon. “The people standing around or even the guy who flips the switch might never fully consider where that responsibility is ...They are safe from it, or at least until the system breaks.”

The system does indeed break in The Execution, which Garfield and Yonaitis developed for Garfield’s senior thesis project at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. They worked on a “tight” budget of $20,000 (ah, Hollywood), haggling and improvising for set pieces, costumes, and film supplies (including Red Bull).

The final product, produced to look like one continuous shot, was chosen to appear at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it showed during five short-film programs. It’s also been selected for this month’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, and next month’s Independent Film Festival in Boston (plus, it’s been submitted to the Maine International Film Festival). Until it shows up in the Northeast, the movie is available for download through iTunes and xBox Live Marketplace.

Still, for Garfield, it’s unlikely that anything will be able to top the Sundance premiere. In addition to a Paris Hilton sighting, a shirtless bar fight, and an anti-fur rally, the young director reports that “limos, clubs, and bizarre spectacles seemed to materialize out of thin air, despite the fact that it was -5 [degrees Fahrenheit] at night!”

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