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FARM: ANGOLA, USA, THE(director/producer: Liz Garbus/Jonathan Stack; screenwriter: Bob Harris; cinematographer: Samuel Henriques/Bob Perrin; editors: Mona Davis/Mary Manhardt; music: Curtis Lundy; cast: Bernard Addison (Narrator); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Gayle Gilman; Seventh Art Releasing; 1998)
“An eloquent documentary relating an inmate’s point of view of being incarcerated in what very well might be the most dangerous and bloody prison in America.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Liz Garbus (daughter of lawyer Martin Garbus) and Jonathan Stack create an eloquent documentary relating an inmate’s point of view of being incarcerated in what very well might be the most dangerous and bloody prison in America. The prison is a former slave plantation named Angola because the slaves came from there; it was turned into a prison at the end of the Civil War, which makes it one of the oldest prisons in America. It is in rural Louisiana and is situated on 18,000 farm acres that are divided up into a number of camps that house about 5000 men looked after by a staff of 1800 in this maximum-security state penitentiary. Most inmates are in for long sentences with little prospects of parole, and since a great many of the inmates are lifers it is estimated that about 85% will die in the prison. Afro-Americans make up about 77% of the prison population. The inmates not on Death Row must work either in the field, where they are paid 4 ¢ an hour, or for higher status jobs inside the prison that pay as high as 20 ¢ an hour.

The filmmakers stayed away from filming the prisoners causing disturbances and instead concentrated on a number of lifers who knew that they may never get released. The aim was to see how the prisoners coped and stay motivated to keep going on with such dim prospects. Shot during the course of one year, with seemingly free access to the prison grounds. Acting as tour guide is the white Christian warden, Burl Cain, who believes in forgiveness. Sympathy is doled out for those in prison, the victims and the workers. The conclusion this Academy Award-nominated documentary comes up with, is that everyone must do what they think is right. The prisoners who can’t afford to pay for a proper lawyer and claim innocence, must follow up on their own to get appeals. While the prison staff must do their job with efficiency and fairness, as we watch a drill to get the execution done just right. The victims are also not forgotten, as their families have a right to address the Pardon Board to state their opinion on whether or not the committed felon deserves to be released.

The film follows six inmates of various stripes and races who are in different stages of their long sentences: George Crawford is a 22-year-old newcomer with a life sentence, who is frightened about the prospects of spending the rest of his life in prison. He doesn’t think he got a fair trial, as his mom is trying to raise $3,000 to get him a new lawyer; Ashanti Witherspoon who was 22 when after a robbery he got into a shootout and wounded two policemen and is now 47 and is serving a 75 year sentence, but who has changed in prison through self-education and has become committed to helping others. He has become a prison trustee allowed to leave the prison grounds unsupervised; Eugene “Bishop” Tannehill received a stiff sentence for his violent crime and has grown to be an old man in prison, incarcerated since 1959, but who has a positive attitude believing it’s all in the hands of God. In prison he found religion and has become an ordained prison preacher, and whose release depends on the governor signing a pardon; John Brown is a thirtysomething hardened white man on Death Row for the last 12 years who faces execution for viciously stabbing to death a robbery victim in front of his wife. The inmate is pictured as someone trying to now live the life of Jesus after a childhood of crime — since he was 14 he has only spent two years of his life not in prison; The black man Vincent Simmons was convicted of raping a 14-year-old white girl and has served 20 years of a 100 year sentence and has his first chance to go before the parole board with new evidence not presented at the trial that the victim was a virgin after the alleged attack. But his parole is still denied; and, finally, there’s an elderly white man, Logan “Bones” Theriot, in the prison hospital dying of lung cancer, who is serving a life sentence for killing his wife because she neglected her pregnant child from another man. “Bones” has found peace with himself and with his maker and is ready to die and be buried on the prison grounds amongst his only friends.

This is the real deal, even if it fails to explore the truth of Angola’s bloody side and what gave the prison its awful reputation. It makes for powerful viewing, even though it leaves more unanswered questions that need some answers–from parole board procedures to the wisdom of such long sentences to something other than evoking banal bleeding heart responses for those who do the crimes.

It was the co-winner (with Frat House) of the Documentary Grand Jury award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”