Not often does one find a young
documentary movie­maker
carving a clearly defined niche early in her career, but such is
the case with Liz Garbus. In the space of just five years, she has
crafted a distinctive reputation as a documentarian with a knack
for examining the American criminal justice system and the plight
of its denizens. After her Sundance-winning and Oscar-nominated 1998
feature debut The Farm: Angola U.S.A., Garbus proceeded to
chronicle the inequalities of the penal process and the fate of the
incarcerated in two subsequent projects. In 2002 she made the acclaimed The
Execution of Wanda Jean
(2002), a searing examination of the
case of the first African-American woman sentenced to death in modern
times. Her new film, Girlhood, is a heartrending portrait
of two young women as they move in and out of the juvenile correctional

Surprisingly, Garbus claims
that her post-Farm choices
of subject matter came to her through external factors, and were not
calculated as obvious progressions from her debut film. “Every film has
led to the next one. When I was talking to people and making The Farm,
I heard about people spending time in the juvenile justice system, and
I felt that that was the next place I wanted to go, so I started making Girlhood,” she
says.  “The films have organically grown from one to the next. After
I finished Girlhood, I became very interested in foster care. My
father was a lawyer and he did a lot of civil rights work, so that was
always in my head. Certainly because I’ve developed a body of work in this
area, people now think of me when they have a [criminal justice] story.
I also feel that, in this country, there’s such a lack of understanding
and healing and forgiveness in the way we regard those who’ve committed
crimes… I
still feel that this is fertile ground for inquiry. And I’m really compelled
by a great story.”

“I still talk to [them]. When you’re making the
film, you want to talk to them every single day, and then all
of a sudden you vanish? That’s not fair. It’s not
my style.”

While it served as her initial voyage into feature moviemaking, The
—a harrowing examination of the lives of a group of life-sentenced
inmates inside Angola prison—actually began through the same process
of interrelated film projects. “I’d contacted Wilbert Rideau, an inmate
who edits the prison magazine. He told me about a man who was going to
be executed when there were grave doubts about [his guilt], and that
became the first film I made at Angola—Final Judgment—a piece
for The Discovery Channel,” recalls Garbus. “The making of Final Judgment allowed
me to get an education in the system and build trust among the people
there, which is difficult in a ‘lifer’ prison.”

Garbus’ experience in gaining the confidence of her
incarcerated interview subjects—as well as their family members—would
serve her well in shaping her subsequent projects, The Execution of Wanda Jean for HBO and Girlhood. Girlhood is
perhaps Garbus’ finest work to date, a moving chronicle of two young women,
Shanae and Megan, documented by Garbus over a four-year period as they
leave a Maryland juvenile detention facility and make their way back into
the world.

“I was producing an A&E television documentary on the boys’ juvenile
justice system and—talk about films coming to me organically—one day Shanae
approached me and said, ‘Everyone always does things on the boys in the
justice system, when is someone going to do something on the girls? Don’t
you want to talk to us?’ She was this little girl in pigtails, but here
she was living behind bars, and the contradiction between our notions of
femininity and girlhood versus our ideas about life behind bars really
struck me,” says Garbus.
“I would shoot them about five times a year, for a week at a time, over four
years. Both Shanae and Megan would check in with me a lot, and tell me when something
important was happening to them. It became a real

The bond Garbus has developed with her documentary subjects is
clearly profound, and this undoubtedly contributes to the quality
in her work that resonates most strongly with the viewer. She
has the ability to generate empathy for figures whose actions might not
always engender audience identification. For Garbus, her closeness to her
subjects does not stop at the moment filming is completed. “I don’t detach
myself from my subjects when the project is over,” she
says. “I still talk to people from The Farm, I still talk to Shanae and Megan,
I still check in with Wanda Jean’s family and the mother of the victim. I find
it hard to get so involved with people and then just detach myself. When you’re
making the film, you want to talk to them every single day, and then all of
a sudden you vanish? That’s not fair. It’s not my style.”

While Garbus will shortly return to familiar terrain with
a forthcoming HBO film on the relationship between a young girl and her
imprisoned father, the director has another new project that represents
a departure in both style and content.
Broadcasting this summer on A&E, The Nazi Officer’s Wife is the
moving story of Edith Hahn Beer, an Austrian Jew who fled her country at the
outbreak of WWII and arrived in Germany with a forged Aryan identity and subsequently
married a member of the Nazi party. Adapted from Beer’s autobiography, Garbus’
film is her first feature endeavor within the historical “talking heads” documentary
format, augmented by archival footage and narrated by Susan Sarandon.

“I was really compelled by the story, but I was definitely
intimidated by making it. It was a challenge, but then I started thinking
about what was available to us visually today, and we were lucky to have
this beautifully written memoir to work with,” explains Garbus. “It became
an exercise in the eloquence of storytelling, weaving together materials
without a lot of present-day action, to tell this very personal story.
But I approached it in the editing room the same way I approached my other
films: I let the interviews drive the structure of the film.” MM