You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Farm: Angola, USA

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.

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.

The Farm: Angola, USA

(Docu --- Color)

Production: A Gabriel Films production. Produced by Jonathan Stack, Liz Garbus. Executive producer, Gayle Gilman. Directors, Jonathan Stack, Liz Garbus.

Crew: Camera (video-to-16mm, color), Samuel Henriques, Bob Perrin; editors, Mona Davis, Mary Manhardt; music, Curtis Lundy. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 1998. Running time: 93 MIN.

With: Camera (video-to-16mm, color), Samuel Henriques, Bob Perrin; editors, Mona Davis, Mary Manhardt; music, Curtis Lundy. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 1998. Running time: 93 MIN. Narrator: Bernard Addison.

More Film

  • (L to R) Marco Graf as

    2018 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Winners

    Members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. are meeting today to vote on the year’s best cinema accomplishments. Recent winners of the group’s top prize include “Call Me by Your Name,” “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” “Boyhood,” “Her”/”Gravity” and “Amour.” List of winners below. Check back throughout the morning for updates. Best Film: More Reviews Film Review: 'Bumblebee' [...]

  • Ralph Breaks the Internet

    Box Office: 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' Narrowly Defeats 'Grinch' in Sleepy Pre-Holiday Weekend

    Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” topped a quiet weekend at the domestic box office, marking the third straight win for the animated sequel. It earned $16.2 million in its third week of release, generating $140 million since it opened over Thanksgiving. Another cartooned adventure almost gave “Ralph” a run for its money. Illumination and Universal’s [...]

  • John KrasinskiVariety Actors on Actors, Day

    John Krasinski on 'A Quiet Place': Casting A Deaf Actress Was 'Non-Negotiable'

    John Krasinski’s debut feature “A Quiet Place” tells the story of a family with a deaf child, and the “Jack Ryan” star wanted to make sure he included a deaf actor in the film. “It was a non-negotiable thing for me,” Krasinski told Rosamund Pike of the casting during their conversation for Variety‘s “Actors on [...]

  • Rosamund Pike John Krasinski

    John Krasinski and Rosamond Pike on Vulnerability and Decompressing After Tense Scenes

    John Krasinski and Rosamund Pike sat down for a conversation for Variety’s Actors on Actors. For more, click here.  In “Gone Girl,” Rosamund Pike proved she could put herself through anything. The British actress, a well-loved supporting player in “Pride & Prejudice” and “An Education,” took the lead and scored her first Oscar nomination. Four years later, [...]

  • Aquaman

    'Aquaman' Rules Overseas Box Office With $94 Million in China

    “Aquaman” launched with a massive $93.6 million in China, marking the best start for a Warner Bros. title in that territory. The superhero adventure — directed by James Wan and starring Jason Momoa as the king of the seven seas — isn’t opening in North America for another two weeks, but the studio wanted to [...]

  • (L to R) MAHERSHALA ALI and

    Scores from 'Green Book,' 'Solo,' Others Disqualified from Oscar Race (EXCLUSIVE)

    First-round voting is underway for Oscar’s Original Song and Original Score categories, but Academy music-branch voters are discovering that four talked-about scores are missing from the eligibility list. Music for “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” “Green Book,” “Mandy” and “The Other Side of the Wind” has been disqualified for various reasons, Variety has learned. More [...]

  • Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson appear

    'Minding the Gap' Wins Top Award From International Documentary Association

    Bing Liu’s skateboarding movie “Minding The Gap” has won the International Documentary Association’s award for top feature of 2018. Floyd Russ’s “Zion” was awarded best short. Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” won for best limited series and HBO’s “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls” took the ABC News VideoSource Award. PBS’ “POV” won for best curated [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content