It has been an exceptionally good year for documentary films, Liz Garbus agrees. Just don’t expect her to do a touchdown dance quite yet.
The director of the 2002 Sundance documentary The Execution of Wanda Jean and co-director of the Oscar-nominated The Farm: Angola, USA knows it’s tough getting people to go out to the movies to see the kind of films she makes—nonfiction films about difficult social issues. But with the commercial breakthrough of Bowling for Columbine and smaller-scale successes this year for Capturing the Friedmans, Spellbound and others, Garbus sees some hope for the financial viability of documentaries. “I think there have been other films in recent years that have broken through critically,” said Garbus in a phone interview, “and this year, there were films that were not just extraordinary but did business. ... It’s about people seeing that documentary filmmakers can be great storytellers.”
That notion of documentary filmmaker as storyteller will be central to Garbus’ weeklong residency at the City Library Auditorium—co-sponsored by the Salt Lake City Film Center—with filmmaking partner Rory Kennedy (American Hollow). She hopes to introduce audiences not just to the issues in her films, but the ways documentarians choose to construct their material. Or, as she once said in an interview with Salon, “Anybody looking to a documentary for objectivity is misguided.”
“I’m not saying you necessarily go into a film with a certain point of view that you set out to prove,” Garbus elaborated. “If you go into a project for years, your presence there has an effect on the world you’re documenting. That affects the way real-life events transpire. As a viewer, one should appreciate that.”
Garbus certainly acknowledges that her own passions and experiences drive her choice of subjects. Her father is Martin Garbus, the renowned civil liberties attorney whose famous cases—including defending Lenny Bruce during the comedian’s infamous obscenity trial—led to dinner-table conversation about law and justice. While she recently completed a film about Holocaust survivor Edith Hahn, her films have tended to focus on people whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system.
The results have been powerful films that can affect the director as strongly as they affect an audience. She recalls that while making The Execution of Wanda Jean—about a death-row inmate in Oklahoma—her husband joined her to offer emotional support. “That’s when I started getting my gray hairs, I think,” Garbus said with a laugh. “These things age you. They do take tolls on you.”
She also noted that becoming something of a specialist in films about criminal justice has inspired other inmates to contact her, hoping to get their own voices heard. “You get these letters, and they break your heart,” Garbus admitted. “But you kind of have to stay focused. There are 2 million people behind bars, and all of them feel they have a story.”
The process of making films about those stories still requires money, however, and despite those recent theatrical successes, documentaries remain difficult to put together financially. Only the filmmaker’s passion, Garbus believes, can keep them going sometimes. “There are some projects that are impossible to do, but you just do them because you have to,” she said. “[Garbus’ latest film] Girlhood was a difficult process, but that was my project, and that was my baby. If it’s your baby, you’re the one who has to push the rock up the hill.”
So while she continues pushing rocks up hills and making powerful films, Garbus brings her work to audiences with the message that nonfiction filmmaking isn’t all about archival footage and interviews with guys in tweed jackets: “Documentary films aren’t medicine. They’re great stories about people in times of crisis ... or rising to triumph from unknown places. People go to the movies for great stories. What’s better [for providing] that than real life?”