Photo by Sophie Olmstead

IN PERSON, FILMMAKER LIZ GARBUS ISN'T WHAT you'd expect. Co-director of the powerful Academy Award­ nominated documentary The Farm: Angola U.S.A., daughter of a prominent civil rights attorney, progressively schooled Upper West Sider, magna cum laude Brown graduate — the description seems to fit someone a little more buttoned-down and sober, perhaps, than the young woman who, a few minutes late for her interview, comes bounding across Beverly Boulevard, against traffic, New Yorker­style. Funny and talkative, Garbus is as ready to hold forth on her film and her beliefs as she is to enjoy some speculation on what she'll wear to the Oscars. The house of Yves Saint-Laurent has offered to lend her a gown, but she fears that the designer may not be right for her.

Although being nominated for a film you began at 25 (Garbus will be 29 “any minute now”) is no small feat, to make a film about life in prison that's as clear-eyed and even-toned as The Farm is another matter entirely. Structured around the lives of six inmates — including a prisoner dying from cancer, a convict on death row, and a new arrival — the film looks at the struggle for meaning and hope in a place where the great majority of the population will remain until they die. Considering not only the sheer emotional strain of shooting the picture, but the fact that Garbus and co-director Jonathan Stack needed nine months to edit down the 100-plus hours of footage, the task seemed daunting at best. But then, Garbus shows an almost preternatural faith in her ability. She refers to her will to communicate matters of importance with enviable authority, as if forging ahead with monumental tasks is a matter of course. It's a trait she was exposed to from the beginning.

“My parents were — are — so incredibly supportive,” says Garbus, “and, growing up, both my sister and I were told that we could do anything, the sky was the limit. The level of support and respect was always so enormous that I think I always believed I could do whatever I wanted.” Garbus' home milieu was also unusually charged with leftist politics and social awareness (her mother is a therapist/social worker). When Garbus was a child, she recalls, her father, Martin, represented Kathy Boudin, who was convicted for her role in the Weather Underground's Brinks robbery. The conversation Garbus heard around the dinner table, which frequently made room for her father's radical lawyer friends, would center around Boudin and her politics, her treatment and the social climate. Prisons also came early into her consciousness with Dad's frequent visits to Boudin in jail.

“There was always something in me that felt there had to be some fairness in the world,” Garbus says with a laugh, “and I think that had a lot to do with what I saw all the time.” Combine that with a talent for interaction — “a people-oriented side that I got from my mother” — and you have someone tailor-made for the sort of filmmaking The Farm entailed.

The Farm wasn't the first film that Garbus and Stack made at Angola. It was while working on somebody else's documentary, a picture about love at first sight, that Garbus first encountered the 18,000-acre Louisiana prison. For Garbus, it was also an immediate attraction. “Someone had fallen in love with a prisoner, and we went to Angola,” she explains. “Then I read Wilbert's book.” She's speaking of Wilbert Rideau, the award-winning journalist and 38-year Angola inmate who served as another co-director on The Farm and who is the author of the journalism-school staple Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars. Garbus struck up an acquaintance. “I had spoken to Wilbert on the phone,” she says. “I knew that this was the first film I wanted to direct.” Rideau was also interested in doing a film about Angola, but wasn't convinced that Garbus was the one to make it.

“I wanted to start at the top,” he says with a chuckle, phoning from Angola, where he's serving a life term for murder, “and Liz wasn't at the top.” Yet when the other, bigger producers with whom he'd been in contact turned out to be all talk, Rideau found that Garbus was ready to make good on her intentions.

“Wilbert said, 'There's a man, he has an execution date in February,'” Garbus recounts. “'I have some serious concerns about his guilt or innocence, and somebody should do something about this.'” She wasted no time, approaching Stack, a filmmaker whose credits included TV documentaries and for whom, through a family connection, she had worked fresh out of college. The film that resulted, Final Judgment: The Execution of Antonio James, became, as Garbus puts it, “a rehearsal for The Farm.”

IT'S NOT A RARE THING TO BE MOVED BY A DOCUmentary; if the person, place or event at the film's core is compelling enough, the story need not even be that artfully told — witness the vast proliferation of slapdash cable biographies, History Channel re-creations and apparently limitless number of D-Day remembrances. What makes The Farm so distinctly affecting is its makers' insistence on engaging viewers in a dialogue — with the film, with the inmates and, most importantly, with themselves. From the moment 22-year-old George, convicted of murder, is shown entering the gates of the prison where he will spend the rest of his natural life, the questions begin: Is he guilty? Is he innocent? Does he deserve a second chance? If it were me, how would I bear it? Yet, despite the film's obvious progressive leanings, Garbus, Stack and Rideau refuse to answer them for us, demanding that viewers take the time, if only the film's 100 minutes, to think about people and issues that are easier to set aside.

“It was something that Jonathan and I talked about a lot,” she says. “The only way we could make this film was if we suspended judgment. You have to walk in there and say, 'Maybe what this guy says is true, and even if this other guy says something that's totally the opposite, I believe it's true.'”

There were times that were more difficult than others, including a surreal Christmas visit, with a clown strolling a cell block to tell prisoners they “aren't forgotten.” And though Garbus feels that her gender helped bring an appreciated gentleness to her dealings with the inmates, there were occasions when she felt ill at ease as a woman in the prison. One such instance was her talk with Vincent Simmons — she learned the details of his crime as the camera was running. “With Vincent Simmons, my race and gender was something I was very conscious of, because either he did rape a white woman, or he was railroaded by one and wrongly imprisoned. It's impossible not to understand what I represent within that spectrum.

“You would walk out at night,” Garbus adds, “you could walk out — and your soul would feel so drained. And that's right, that's what we should feel. These are people who, whether or not they deserve a second chance — because maybe there are some who don't, but others do — who are never going to be alive again, really.

“I want people to feel that no matter what people have done, they are human,” she continues. “You have to confront that humanity, and that's much more difficult.”

While she's looking forward to the push that the Oscars will give The Farm, Garbus is hardly sitting and waiting. She's continuing her documentary work with a film about juvenile delinquents, and developing her first narrative feature. Based on Billy, the novel by Albert French, the film tells the story of the trial and execution of an African-American boy in '30s Mississippi, and the effects it has on his town. “It's an equally difficult subject,” she admits, “but something I hope sheer passion and will will make happen.” If anyone's passion and will is effective, it's Garbus'. As Wilbert Rideau says, “Liz? She's a dynamo.”

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.