Q&A: Reaching Past the Art-House Crowd

By Meadow Dibble-Dieng ’03 A.M. / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
Liz Garbus has made her reputation filming people on the margins of society. She won an Oscar nomination and a pair of Emmys for The Farm, her 1998 documentary about six men in America’s most notorious maximum-security prison. That same year she and Rory Kennedy ’91 merged their film companies into Moxie Firecracker, coproducing projects such as the HBO special Pandemic: AIDS (directed by Kennedy) and The Nazi Officer’s Wife (directed by Garbus), which aired on A&E last June.

For their latest venture, Girlhood, Garbus followed two Baltimore teenagers—one of whom stabbed a friend to death at age eleven—through the juvenile detention system and then back home.

Girlhood opened in New York City this fall and screens in November at film festivals before airing next year on the Learning Channel.

BAM For Girlhood, you followed two girls, Megan and Shanae, for three years, both in the juvenile detention center and after their release: do you feel that your presence had an impact on the outcome of their rehabilitation?

Garbus Anytime you make a documentary, it affects people’s lives. Objectivity is unattainable. Especially since these girls were young, the effect seems even greater. But the converse is actually true. I was surprised that our presence didn’t have a greater impact—particularly with Megan. The system dropped the ball on her. The entire state of Maryland knew we were doing this project and yet they allowed her to fall through the cracks.

As for Shanae, she was always on her own track. She was ambitious and wanted to take full advantage of the system.

My critiques are subtle. I like to take a fly-on-the-wall approach. It is more effective than voice-over narration.

BAM Most of your films are about outsiders. What draws you to the fringes?

Garbus I grew up in a liberal household. My father was a civil-rights and civil-liberties lawyer. Around the dinner table we would discuss all sorts of important issues. I am in a privileged position, thanks to my education and access to the public.

BAM You’ve described Moxie Firecracker as having a “commitment to tell personal stories that help illuminate complex social issues.” What does that mean to you as a filmmaker?

Garbus When I wake up in the morning I want to feel that what I do has a larger meaning than just going to work. Commitment means touching on a variety of issues: poverty, criminal justice, health, the death penalty. It’s about contributing to a dialogue. I want to do this in a way that is not didactic or pedagogic, but in a way that moves people, that alters or softens their opinions, so that maybe even they don’t notice it’s happening.

BAM Does documentary lend itself to this kind of expression better than other genres—fictional films or even nonfiction books?

Garbus Not better—the other forms can make great contributions. A good documentary can get great exposure and have an important impact, reaching millions of viewers and not just the art-house crowd.

BAM How important is getting your films on television?

Garbus I don’t do much without first being assured of distribution. It’s all about reaching people.

BAM In Girlhood, the fathers are nearly invisible. Was that a strategic decision?

Garbus It reflects their presence in their [daughters’] lives. These men were not involved. Megan would sometimes see her father on the street, and it was to get in a fight. He refused to speak in front of our cameras. Shanae’s father wasn’t really around.

BAM What made you choose these two girls?

Garbus Shanae approached me. Megan, I felt her story was very compelling. She was an amazing character, her life story spoke to so many issues, and she was very articulate, eloquent. Good characters in a documentary are expressive ones.

BAM Did you feel you had to establish a distance with the girls while you were doing the project? Megan seemed so needy for attention—did she look to you for it?

Garbus Yes, they looked to me for attention. And doing a documentary is a means of providing attention.

I’m still very involved with the girls. Even more so in some senses now that the project is completed. Megan has a lot of problems. I helped her find a lawyer to allow her to file for benefits, for example. I don’t believe in objectivity or in maintaining a distance. I can’t conceive of finishing this project and then just closing the book, walking away from these girls. I wouldn’t do that to my friends, why would I do it to them? It’s about being human.

Meadow Dibble-Dieng is a Brown doctoral candidate in French studies.
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November / December 2003