An Interview with Jonathon Stack and Liz Garbus of the "The Farm"
by Anthony Kaufman
[This week indieWIRE features more interviews with Sundance films. Today, the Dramatic Jury Prize winner in the Documentary competition, “The Farm” which tied with “Frat House“. Coming up this week, Best Cinematography award winner “2 x 4” and Best Documentary director Julia Loktev from “Moment of Impact“. Also stories on the Midnight Films, the Frontier section, and interviews with other up-and-coming directors.]
“The Farm” is the second visit for documentary directors Jonathon Stack and Liz Garbus to Louisiana’s Angola prison, formerly one of the bloodiest penal institutions in the country. Their first trip concluded in the Emmy nominated film “Final Judgement”, which traced the final days of a death row inmate. In this second journey, the two directors, with the help of co-director and inmate, Wilbur Rideau, turn away from the grim realities of capital punishment to the hope, frustration and spiritual survival of those incarcerated for life and death sentences.
Just days before winning Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, “The Farm” received the Golden Spire, the top honor in the Golden Gate Awards, the San Francisco International Film Festival’s annual juried competition. It has been a good year for the team of experienced documentarians and judging from the honor and support they have garnered, “The Farm” is sure to head to theaters soon.
indieWIRE: How do you pick what you’re going to focus on with a subject so vast and complex?
Jonathon Stack: It wasn’t a straight ethnography about the prison. We were really trying to capture a sense of spirit of humanity there, of the best in human beings and not to try to make another film about the sordid reality of prison. And it was a celebration, I think, of the potential of redemption, of human beings, who have been in the darkest places and who have come out through the other side. By working with Wilbur Rideau, who was the co-director with us, it gave us a personal access, an intimacy that makes the film special. He wanted to make sure that people watching the film in America would remember this place, and this group of people, these 5000 men, who for the most part, are abandoned and forgotten about.
Liz Garbus: We made a film called “Final Judgement” — we spent the last two weeks with somebody’s life on death row. And when we were down there, we were struck by Angola, the mere concept that 85% of the 5000 men who live there, die and are buried there, it is such an enormously difficult concept. How do you create meaning within your life faced with that reality? And that’s a new reality in this country. There is a sense of time, coupled with facing your mortality. Those are the questions we wanted to answer, and looking to answer those questions, we selected characters and stories which would speak to those deeper questions of hope, mortality and how you create meaning in your life when meaning has been stripped away.
iW: How much time did you spend in Angola before putting the camera to their faces?
Garbus: It’s hard to say because since we already spent two weeks making another film. During that film, we were going around with a little camera and shooting stuff which ended up becoming useful in “The Farm”. So really, it was two years ago Jonathon and I went down to Angola for the first time.
Stack: Every time we went down there, we tried to film something. There is stuff in this piece that I shot by myself, with no sound person. There were times Liz went down. We did what we had to do. Working in prisons is a lot about perseverance and endurance. It’s very complicated interpersonal relationships. You want the subjects of your film, the inmates, to trust you and at the same time, you have an institution that is paranoid about the media and needs to be carefully spoken to as well. I want the film to make a difference outside of the prison, but also want the film to have a positive for those in the prison.
iW: There is always a question in making documentaries of wanting to get too involved or wanting to interfere. . .
Garbus: There were certain times where we thought about writing petitions, or talking to the governor on behalf of the various inmates. But Wilbur Rideau told us that the inmates didn’t want us to do that, because that can go either way for them. Emotionally, it was very difficult. One of the most difficult things for me in the process was the last night, when we ate dinner with John Brown [facing capital punishment], we were there on his last day, eating crawfish, and he was so high (they had given him some sort of drug) and he had been up all night, and he knows he’s going to be killed in about four hours, so it was probably the most surreal experience I’ve ever had. And they’re teaching us to eat crawfish.
First question was, well, should we continue to film? Should we film this man’s last meal? No, we didn’t. Enough is enough. There are those areas where filmmaking and a sense of moral responsibility, of what’s right, collide, but in the end, Jonathon and I feel like we had the material we needed and it wasn’t necessary to transgress a moment that was highly emotional, highly charged and highly private.
iW: Did you ever think about including yourself more as a presence in the picture?
Stack: For one reason, Wilbur was going to be an onscreen presence more and in the end, it just didn’t work out for various reasons.
Garbus: At first, we didn’t have Jonathon and my’s voices, which come in for questions from time to time, we didn’t have that in the film in the beginning and then found it necessary to include that. But even when we first saw it with those voices, a friend said, “Does it take away from the intimacy?” I think that in the film there is a very intense relationship between viewer and character, we’re very close to them. We’re very involved with them emotionally, so even when you here our voices asking the questions, it even takes you out for a second. But of course, we needed them, because the people didn’t answer in full sentences.
Stack: I think when you’re trying to create polemic, then putting yourself in it is the fair thing to do, if you’re going to make fun, then put yourself in it and deal with it. When you’re going in with a whole set of questions, unless it’s a very personal film, then you don’t really need yourself in there. And in a way, it’s like we’re all in there anyway.
Garbus: We’re trying to be, particularly in working with Wilbur, trying to get a view from the inside — which of course we never can, because we’re not locked up. At the same time, it’s about maintaining that kind of the intimacy. When you insert yourself in the film, it is appropriate for some, but it just wasn’t appropriate for this one.
iW: Are you going to stick to theatrical distribution or will you do grassroots distribution, like schools, etc.?
Garbus: That’s for sure, that goes without saying, that we’re going to get this film into schools. I showed it for the first time in Salt Lake City to a group 250 school kids. It was totally white. It was 16 year-old kids and I’m sure most of the kids come from a relatively conservative background. And they all stayed afterwards, answering questions, and they were completely turned on to it, asking questions, “How can this be” and “how can that be.” The lack of efficiency of the criminal justice system is a hugely important lesson, to open people’s eyes to that is very important. So schools, universities, that goes without saying. Theatrical would be wonderful.
Stack: That’s icing on the cake. We’re not naive, we’re not holding out for a million bucks. It’s very different from a dramatic theatrical film. But we’ll try to make it happen.