The much deserving top doc co-winner at Sundance, “The Farm: Angola, USA” is an ambitious, appropriately moody peek behind the razor wire that surrounds Louisiana State Penitentiary — America’s largest maximum security prison. Co directed by Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus, with a strong assist from prison-mag editor Wilbert Rideau, doc has terrific narrative drive and dramatic heft. Rave reviews and strong word of mouth could mean “Hoop Dreams”-type bookings for this matter of fact — and, therefore, all the more devastating — indictment of the U.S. penal system.
After the obligatory stats (85% of the 5,000 inmates will die behind bars), film puts its editing team to the test by laying out parallel stories of six prisoners, including Logan (Bones) Theriot, a wife-killer in the last stages of lung cancer, and Eugene (Bishop) Tannehill, an elderly inmate who preaches eternal salvation as he awaits a parole that never comes. Semblance of inner peace achieved by both men forces viewer to question basic tenets of hope and freedom.
The perspectives of the frightened newcomer and the death row vet who has used up his last appeal are provided by George Crawford and John Brown, respectively. Crawford’s nervous gaze speaks volumes. As he arrives by bus and is processed as the narrator informs, “For those heading to Angola, life means life.”
Harsh realities of life inside — your wife and friends soon forget you; one by one, family members stop visiting — are spelled out in the world’s most depressing orientation session. Acceptance is essential to survival, new prisoners are told.
Shot on location over a yearlong stretch and set to Curtis Lundy’s indigenous jazz, doc is crammed with stranger than fiction stuff, such as the prison deejay’s Christmas patter and a condemned man’s last meal of crawfish. Among the bleakly humorous vignettes: children being patted down by guards on visiting day, and guards’ kids playing baseball a quarter-mile from death row, in “the safest town in America.”
Dramatic highlights, if they can be termed such, are provided by ill-fated parole hearings for rapist Vincent Simmons and armed robber Ashanti Witherspoon. The contrast between convicts poring over law books, building their case for early release, and these sham hearings, presided over by smug, good ol’ boy tribunals, will have viewers shaking their fists at the screen, especially when you hear it’s Simmons’ first hearing in 20 years.
At heart, film is an eloquent, evenhanded plea for compassion and forgiveness, arguing that there is no reason to continue warehousing “changed” men like Bishop Tannehill and that a system that takes the opposite tack is more interested in vengeance than justice. Also, given the makeup of the prison population (77% black) and the paternalistic attitude of the white warden, docu more than suggests institutionalized racism. The prison farm, which turns a tidy profit with mostly black labor, sits on the site of what used to be a plantation, farmed by slaves from West Africa.
“The Farm,” recorded on high resolution Beta and Sony tape and transferred to 16mm, covers an amazing amount of ground in 93 short minutes. It ends with a final crushing irony: Much to his biological family’s consternation, Bones Theriot elects to be buried on prison soil, beside the only real family he knew.