She’s Got Moxie: Liz Garbus on “Girlhood” and Lives of Incarceration
by Brandon Judell
Liz Garbus, co-founder of Moxie Firecracker Films, has a lot to pop over when looking back over her career nowadays. This youthful, brunette helmer has directed numerous documentaries including the Oscar-nominated “The Farm: Angola, USA” (1998), a look at America’s most infamous maximum-security prison; “The Execution of Wanda Jean” (2002), a chronicle of the last days of a woman who killed her lesbian lover; and “The Nazi Officer’s Wife” (2003), the story of Edith Hahn, a Jew who survived the war by marrying a Nazi.
The energetic director has also produced such docs as “Pandemic: Facing AIDS” (2003), “In Search of the Happy Ending” (1999), and “Together: Stop Violence Against Women” (2003).
But what Garbus wants to talk about today is her latest feature, “Girlhood.” This South by Southwest 2003 audience award winner focuses on two young girls incarcerated in the Waxter Juvenile Facility, Maryland’s home for violent juvenile offenders. She produced it with company partner Rory Kennedy and co-producer Amy Goodman, with cinematography by Tony Hardmon and editing by Mary Manhardt.
Subject One: Shanae, who was gang-raped by five boys at age 10, and she stabbed a friend to death at age 11. Subject Two: Megan, whose mother was a heroin addict and prostitute, and who attacked a child with a box cutter.
Do these two gals have a future? You’ll be surprised. You’ll also be astounded at the highly intimate footage captured during the three years of shooting “Girlhood.”
To find out more, I visited the director in her Varick Street offices while she was in mid-lunch. Garbus asked me to query her with long questions so she’d have a chance to chew. I tried to comply but failed.
But amid her chomping, I did get to check out her territory. In her bookcase were stacked several copies of “Courting Disaster,” a book by her dad Martin Garbus, plus travel guides to Italy and Los Angeles, plus a VHS copy of “Genghis Blues.” On her walls were a National Society of Film Critics Annual Award for “The Farm,” plus a letter from Al Pacino: “I had the good fortune to see your documentary film. It is a film that I’ll never forget. It is the one that has affected me and inspired me.”
Finished with the walls, and since it would be impolite to go through her drawers in front of her, the interview began in earnest.
indieWIRE: Could you have made this film without a digital camera?
Liz Garbus: We used a DSR 500, which is sort of “prosumer” model. I think I could have made the documentary without a digital camera, but I think it would have been more expensive, and therefore I wouldn’t have been able to shoot as much as I wanted to shoot. I also would have had to budget differently.
iW: The Maysles brothers and Errol Morris designed their own cameras to get more intimate with their subjects. How long did it take you for Shanae and Megan to forget you and your camera were filming everything they did? After all, you did capture some spectacularly intimate moments. You really did seem to become part of the fourth wall.
Garbus: I think in the beginning there’s always an awareness of the camera. Particularly during the first two weeks of shooting. That’s whether it’s two solid weeks or spread over six months. It has a lot to do with just sort of trust in the relationship that builds between the filmmaker and the subject. There are some people who will never be relaxed in front of a camera, and in some ways that’s my failing as a filmmaker to not put them at ease. It’s also a function of time, and if you have that type of time.
So for these girls, I became very, very close to them. Very involved with them. And I think at a certain point you become part of their lives as opposed to somebody coming in to look at their lives. That’s when that sort of awareness of the camera breaks down. Also my crew was very, very small. They also became consistent. It wasn’t like a different cameraman every two weeks. They became very close with the girls, too. I think after a year of filming, we were really able to blend in to some degree.
iW: Is a Michael Apted “7-Up”-type project in your future?
Garbus: I don’t know if HBO would fund me for seven years, but to do a revisiting film is something I’d really love to do.
iW: Does a documentary film director have much time for a social life outside these office walls? By the way, this is not a small office. The office of the director of the doc “Hell House” could fit into this room alone three times over.
Garbus: I also share my company with somebody. Moxie Firecracker is my production company and Rory Kennedy’s production company, so we sort of pool, but we have a nice office. (Laughs) I’m very happy with my office.
iW: But you’re still not at the level where you can get a house in the Hamptons?
Garbus: I don’t have a house in the Hamptons. (Laughs)
iW: No, huh? Is that ever a possibility for a documentary filmmaker?
Garbus: A house in the Hamptons? I don’t think so. Maybe a house in Columbia County, NY. Talk to me in 10 years, I’ll tell you.
iW: What if a film company wanted to buy the rights to “Girlhood” to remake it a narrative feature? Would that be one way of making money or would the money go to the people filmed?
Garbus: No, I own the copyright to this film. I don’t know what kind of money that would bring in. I don’t think you make documentary films to get your country house. If you’re trying to gamble on that, you’ve very foolish. “Girlhood” is really a money-losing proposition because I worked on it for so long. There is so much investment in it of people’s labor time that it will never make money. But there are other documentaries that you might make that are sort of on assignment for television that turn around in three to six months. Then the margin can be much be better for you because you’re not spending three-and-a-half years on it. So I think if you’re doing documentary films, that’s sort of the way to look at it.
iW: Now have the girls seen the film?
Garbus: Yes, both girls have seen the film.
iW: With audiences or privately?
Garbus: No, they’ve seen it privately. They will be seeing it with audiences in the next four weeks.
iW: Will they be shocked because the audiences will sort of treat them as stars, at least for that evening?
Garbus: For me, it’s something I’m really looking forward to. Both girls are still struggling in their own ways, but they both have huge challenges in front of them. There’s very little in their lives that just sort of feels good. That is without a struggle. So I hope this will be a rar e moment where they can kind of just enjoy themselves and forget all about that for once.
iW: What did Megan say when she saw “Girlhood”?
Garbus: Megan said she liked it a lot. Megan did a lot of talking to the TV set as it was going on. (Laughs) She felt that there was a lot of truth in the film. She was sort of worried that it wouldn’t feel like her life. When she understood that 40 minutes was her screen time after three years that we had spent with her, I think she couldn’t comprehend how that could possibly work. Because to her 40 minutes is like one conversation that we filmed. So she didn’t at first understand how it could be represented in this little time. But after seeing it, she felt that we were really able to sort of capture some of the nuances of her life, some of the struggles, her relationship with her mother, and her experiences at Waxter. I think she felt like there was truth there for her. She was happy about that.
iW: Now getting a bit personal, can anyone come by a psychological portrait of you by looking at all of your films?
Garbus: (Laughs) Maybe my husband. I do a lot of films on the criminal justice system. I’ve also done work outside of it. I don’t know. I think it’s like one of those questions I’m still pondering. Maybe that’s why I keep returning to some of these stories. But I do think that in many ways, they really led organically one to the other. “The Farm” led to this work in the juvenile justice system. I met so many adults who had spent all this time in the juvenile justice system that I was really interested in looking at it.
And now I’m doing this film about a little girl, and in many ways she’s a precursor to Megan. Her father’s locked up. So the films have been very organically connected. It just made a lot of sense from a story point of view to kind of continue this sort of journey in search of some understanding of the lives that have been affected by incarceration. But I’ve done a whole lot of other films.
iW: But they’re often about people surviving under extraordinary conditions with the odds against them.
Garbus: Right. That’s certainly true with “Girlhood.” That’s what “The Nazi Officer’s Wife” is. She was in her own kind of prison. She was in a prison of false identity. But it’s often about surviving against extraordinary odds, and I guess I have a certain relentlessness towards my work. “Oh, you can’t get into that prison? I’m going to figure out a way.” Perhaps that’s sort of echoed in the subject matter.
iW: Now if you ran into Shirley MacLaine, do you think she might argue that in a former life you were imprisoned in the Bastille?
Garbus: I don’t know about that, but maybe we’ll have to call Shirley and find out.