SXSW Film Preview: "Incendiary: The Willingham Case"
Crazed glass is a phenomenon well-known to fire investigators and arson experts. If you heat up a piece of glass and hit it with water, an intricate, spider-like pattern of cracks appears. For a long time, fire investigators believed it was caused by extreme and rapid exposure to heat. Then, forensic scientists proved the opposite. Water from firefighters’ hoses, or any rapid cooling, causes the crazing.
This is the kind of science explored in the film “Incendiary: The Willingham Case,” co-directed by Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr. of the University of Texas at Austin.
The documentary, which Mims describes as “a scientific murder mystery with a healthy dose of political theater,” tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man who was convicted of murder and executed in 2004 for setting his house on fire and killing his three daughters. All three Willingham girls died, while their father escaped with only minor burns. At the time, investigators were certain it was arson. But in 20 years, arson science has come a long way. A debate is still raging over whether Texas executed an innocent man.
Most of the press surrounding the case focused on the relationship between Willingham and his wife Stacey, who said her husband confessed the arson to her. The prosecution also claimed that he set the fire to cover his wife's abuse of the children.
“We thought that was all beside the point of trying to determine whether the fire was an arson fire,” said Bailey.
Arson expert Dr. Gerald Hurst submitted a memo disputing the arson to the board of pardons and parole and Governor Perry before the execution. The Texas Forensic Science Commission hired Dr. Craig Beyler to review the Willingham case, and he issued a report echoing the conclusions of Hurst. Two days before he was to testify to the Commission, Governor Perry removed the chairman and a few commissioners from TFSC. In 2009, five years after Willingham’s execution, a story in the New Yorker reignited the case in the national media and inspired Bailey, who, in turn, convinced Mims to take on the challenge of a scientific documentary. After one interview with Hurst, Mims and Bailey were convinced the film had to be made.
“The stories you hear in the news circle around your typical crime television show, with only surface level explorations of what really happened,” said Bailey. “The scientific approach to the film is the most fascinating and least understood…20 years after the fact, when all of the witnesses have died, the only thing you can really work with is scientific evidence.”
Mims assured viewers that they won’t be watching an hour and a half of crazed glass and other forensic science lessons. With so many passionate characters and political heat, the directors could let the cameras roll.
“In some ways, it’s really funny and it will shock people. It will make you angry and make you laugh out loud,” he said.
The film gives life to a scene many of us have only seen in snippets on the news, when Willingham’s wife Stacey, flanked by her gate-keeping attorney, gave a public statement on the courthouse steps the same day of a hearing that many expected would exonerate Willingham.
There are other scenes you’d never get from the mainstream media, including fire demonstrations conducted right here in Austin.
Both directors emphasized the intellectual challenge the audience will face during the film, which Bailey said, “pits your emotions against your brain in a way that’s really fascinating.” You can’t help but think about the death penalty, murder and even family watching this film, yet it’s not a film about the death penalty. The directors did not seek to prove Willingham’s innocence, take on the Governor or make the evening news.
“It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t interview Willingham, but I don’t think we would have done the film if he were alive,” said Bailey. “That’s the thing that really drew us to it. It made it more of a challenge; more beautiful, cinematic and haunting. You have to do your best with what you have, and we have these terrifically motivated people wrestling over the reputation of a dead man.”
Mims said after seeing the final version of the film last week, he’s truly excited about Saturday’s premiere.
“I was scared to death, but after seeing it, I can tell you there is something to keep you following the story right to the end. The enigma is still right there through the end credits.”
Joe Bailey, Jr. graduated from the UT School of Law. Steve Mims is an award-winning filmmaker who teaches in the UT Radio-TV-Film Department and Austin Film Works.
Image courtesy of http://www.incendiarymovie.com/