The Last Supper
2005

A discretionary last supper has been given to prisoners facing the death penalty as long as the punishment has existed. The tradition stems from funeral rites where the deceased person was given food on his deathbed to protect him on his journey to the afterlife. Today, the ritual of giving the last supper to the condemned person has been detached from its origin—it has become as anachronistic as the punishment it accompanies. The Last Supper focuses on this discrepancy between the historical “meaning” and contemporary use of a tradition that has lost its connection with the past.

The film mixes documentary material with sculptural installations and animated graphics. The main character is an American former death-row chef, Brian D. Price, who reconstructs one of the two hundred final meals that he prepared during his time as inmate at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. The macabre stories of his experiences from death row are woven together with practical tips on how to best cook a crappie, or as he calls it, “Last Wish Fish.”

Bigert & Bergström first began to consider the tradition of the last supper in 1994, when they came across a small article in a Swedish daily paper about the execution of the American serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. The short, dry text ended with the words: “He also chose, as is customary, his last meal: fried shrimp, grilled chicken, French fries, and strawberries for dessert.” This seemingly quotidian meal suddenly acquired a very different meaning when placed in relation to the lethal injection that killed Gacy hours later.

This small article initiated a nearly five-year-long research-and-development period, which led the duo to travel around the world searching for the origins of this paradoxical tradition. The film was shot in 2004 in the United States, the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Kenya, South Africa, and Sweden.

Brian D. Price, ex-convict and prison chef. Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, United States. Photo: Charlie Drevstam
Illustration by Johan Mets
Excerpts from the film

STILLS FROM THE FILM

PROCESS photos

Bigert & Bergström, "The Last Supper, Falling Meat." Photo: Gösta Reiland
Bigert & Bergström, "The Last Supper, Cigarettes." Photo: Gösta Reiland
Bigert & Bergström with Brian D. Prince
Photo: Gösta Reiland
Newspaper article about the execution of the American serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr.
Skull with bullet hole. Forensic Museum, Bangkok.
"The Last Supper," the film

Last Supper – Power Ekroth, 2007

 

Once upon a time, long ago, all human beings were rampant savages, without responsibility to anyone else but to themselves. But, at least according to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, as soon as we started to live in families and made camp together with other families, to stake out land for ourselves and try to protect our families and tribes from intruders, there was also a need to create some sort of deal that everyone could agree upon. Our ancestors agreed to what Rousseau dubbed “a social contract” of sorts, which was the beginning of civilization as we know it today, and was a way of ensuring future prosperity for all and not only for the strongest few, or the “fittest” to speak with Darwin.

The punishment, which plays an important part in this contract with other people, is inscribed like laws or in religious scriptures that we all have “signed” when born into what we call “society” or “civilization”. Punishment is basically the practice of imposing something unpleasant as a response to bad or immoral behaviour by an authority above you. This authority may be your mother, God or the society at large. The logic being that if you do something bad, someone else – the authority – will do something equally bad to you.

Beyond the governmental laws, or the rules of the adapted religion in the particular society, there are also other adopted rules in society – these rules are most commonly categorized to be derived from the heritage of “culture” and have different expressions in different cultures and are named “customs”. A custom, quite related to a particular punishment; the death penalty, is the custom to offer the sentenced person a last supper of their choosing just before the execution. This is a custom that remarkably enough seems to be the same regardless of what religion, society or culture one takes part of where it is still done.

Artists Mats Bigert and Lars Bergström, who teamed up together already in 1986 and has since worked with a wide variety of innovative expressions and medias, picked up on the bizarre notion of the custom of the last supper when reading a note in the newspaper one day about what exactly constituted the last supper of an executed person – in detail. In fact, along with the name of the executed person, what time he was killed, the information of what he had for dinner and dessert was all the note would inform the reader about. The absurdity in this custom, phrased as if it were a total normality, was, and still is, indeed puzzling. The Last Supper (2005) is a 58 minute long film signed Bigert & Bergström in which the viewer is taken along quite a ride through some of the intriguing facets of the phenomenon. The ride goes through not only the history and cultural expressions of the last supper, but also through several of the countries where the death penalty still isn’t yet abolished: Thailand, South Africa, the Philippines, Japan, Kenya and none the least, USA. Complexity and depth in the documentary style that dominates through the film is enhanced by the artistic clips and imagery that adds up to the typical “Bigert & Bergström”-touch together with a captivating soundtrack.

Throughout the film we get to see interviews with people who used to be in the executioner’s squad, individuals who are/used to be on death row, people who became freed men after formerly being on death row, prison wardens, a judge, a priest who follow the prisoner through the execution, a monk, a researcher in food studies and other people with a variety of angles and perspectives to the last supper. The documentary investigation is indeed thorough, and the main subject who leads us through the bumps and turns of the subject, while at the same time reconstructing the preparations of a last meal is the musician and chef Brian Price. Price, an ex convict, who has prepared over 200 last meals for Huntsville State Prison, Texas, USA since 1991 tells us that during a busy year he will prepare approximately 40 last meals. Most of the meals Price prepares will not be eaten since not many are able to keep up appetite during the last hours before they know they will die.

The tradition of the last supper is traced to the belief in an eternal human soul, a soul that will be able to continue life in one way or another after the body is being dispersed. In ancient times food was buried with the dead  to ensure their last travels into the land of the death. The last supper has now been detached of the original purposes and has become quite a quirky way of society to show a gentle and human face towards the convicted; that the execution is not a personal thing: it is simply just something that has to be done. It boils down to the “social contract” that we all submit to when we are being born into the society. The contract is signed by all,  where submission to authority of a general will of the people as a whole guarantees the individuals of a society against being subordinated to the wills of others, and also ensures that they obey because they are, collectively, the authors of the law. This is also something Price takes duly note of: “The execution is listed as ‘homicide by stated ordered lethal injection’ – that’s murder in the name of the people”.

Paradoxical mind jumps and absurdity aside, Price and his great cooking skills are the practical and necessary chores for society at large to punish an individual with the harshest penalty there is – death penalty. Every cooked potato, every slice of bread, every cut and every onion ring Price make is one step further towards the final second of someone’s life. Death is a peculiar and abstract thing that eludes any living creature until it evidently happen – to every living creature. Nevertheless, death remains as something very abstract to most living creatures although it is inevitable to us all. Food and the preparation of the food – something with an air of everyday-life to it – make in this case death more and more comprehensible and concrete.

Like any other contract the social contract needs to be renegotiated and at times be re-written. In fact, the thoughts of the philosophers of the Enlightenment lead to a very harsh restructure 300 years ago with the French Revolution and the invention of the guillotine. If the philosophers of that time were right, the human is by nature noble and good – and if so, people are also able to renegotiate the social contract with a completely different turnout. Art, which is philosophy become flesh, is also a meta-structure of the reality we live in, the only one we have. The film The Last Supper confronts man’s paradoxical and double relationship with death, and also  with food. And to confront this paradoxical ritual is to be drawn into a debate about how human mercy and cruelty can share the same dinner table.

Power Ekroth, 2007

This text was published in the catalogue "Crime and Punishment," published on the occasion of the exhibition with the same name at the Kunsthalle Tallin 2007

Exhibitions and Screenings

2005

Gothenburg International Film Festival Jan. 29 - Feb. 6

Milliken Gallery, Stockholm, Feb. 26 - March 26

Cinemanilla International Film Festival, Philippines, Oct. 12 – 25

Molodist International Film Festival, Kiev, Oct. 22 – 30

Kunstnerernas Hus, Oslo, Oct. 28 - Dec. 4

IDFA International Film Festival, Amsterdam, Nov. 25 - Dec. 4
"Silver Wolf Competition"


2006

True/False Intternational Film Festival, 
Columbia Missouri, Feb. 24 - 26

Nelson Gallery, UC Davis, San Francisco, March 30 – May 30

New School Vera List Centre for Art & Politics, New York

Screening and symposium, April 3

True/False International Film Festival, Bellingham, 
Washington, April 21 - 23

DOCUMENTA International Film Festival, Madrid, May 5 - 14

INPUT International TV Conference, Taipei, Taiwan, May 7 - 12

Planete Doc Review International Film Festival, Warsaw, May 12 - 21

Banff International Television Festival, Calgary, June 9 - 12
"Nominated for best Social & Political Documentary"

Auckland International Film Festival, New Zealand July 13 - 30

EIDF International Documentary Festival, Seoul, July 10 - July 16
Wellington International Film Festival, New Zealand, July 20 - Aug. 6 

Dallas Video Festival, August 8 - 13

IFC Center, New York, Screening August 21 

1st. Singapore Biennial, Sept. 4 – Nov. 12

Calgary International Film Festival, Sept. 22 - Oct. 1

Docville International Film Festival, Leuven, Belgium, 
Sept. 28 – Oct. 3. "1st prize in competition"

Cornell Cinema, Ithaca, NY, screening Oct. 4

Tallinn Art Hall, Estonia, Oct. 27 - Dec. 10

Docusur, International Film Festival, Tenerife, Oct. 22 - 29

Jihlava, International Film Festival, Czech Republic, Oct. 24 - 29

Golden Chest, Plovdiv,  Bulgaria, Oct. 31 - Nov. 5

Galeria Noua, Bucharest, Romania, Dec. 6 - Jan. 14 2007


2007

Documentary Fortnight, MoMA, New York, Feb. 2 – March 2

2nd Moscow Biennial, March 1 – April 1

Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, March 22 – April 8

2nd Foto Festival, Kunsthalle Mannheim, Sept. 21 – Oct. 10

2nd Murder By Number International Film Festival, 
Taiwan, Oct. 12 – 19


2008

Kunstverein Wiesbaden, March 1 – 31

Under Pain Of Death, Austrian Cultural Forum, 
New York, Jan. 22 – May 17

Conference of Birds Gallery, Bangkok, August 2 - 23
CREDITS 
"The Last Supper," 2005
Digital video and 16 mm, 57 min.

Written and directed by 
Bigert & Bergström

Director of photography
Charlie Drevstam, Gösta Reiland

Camera assistant
Michael Orrek

Light design
Halldór Gunnarsson

Editor
Daniel Jonsäter

Graphic design
Björn Kusoffsky, Stockholm Design Lab

Animations
Harald Knape, Anton Nordstierna/New®

Digital effects/Online
Philipp Prinz, The Chimney Pot

Telecine
Mats Holmgren, The Chimney Pot

Grading: Jan Lundkvist, Filmteknik

Music
OCSID, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, 
Jean-Louis Huhta, Edward Graham Lewis

Sounddesign and mix
Thomas Huhn, Ljudligan

Research
Antenna, Korakot Punlopruksa, 
Marika Griehsel, Thelma Barnes

Intern
Laura Eriksson

Script consulting
Charlotte Lesche

Translations
Nina Katchadourian, Sina Najafi, Toyoko Reinius

Production assistant
Johan Hjärpe

Produced by Bigert & Bergström in co-production with SVT, 
Kultur & Samhälle, project manager Vera Bonnier, 
with support from DR, NRK , YLE, Nordiska TV-samarbetsfonden 
and pre-production support from The Swedish Film Institute, 
film consultant Göran Olsson.
Shooting the film