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Laramie Movie Scope: The Farm: Angola, USA

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by Mike McElreath, Documentary Film Critic
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March 4, 1999 -- "The Farm: Angola, USA," begins and ends with inmate funeral scenes. In between are stories of hope and salvation, the beginning of a life sentence in prison for a 22-year old convicted murderer and the end of life and his life sentence for another elderly murderer.

"The farm," is a Louisiana State maximum-security penitentiary, a place with a "time zone" unlike any other we know. Over 85% of the 5,000 inmates will die here. Most will never have a visitor after their first three years. Yet, as we follow six inmates' stories, the filmmakers do not reveal tormented-spirits, physical violence, or escape plans. Despite dismal odds, what we observe is a human struggle to hold onto hope, hope for freedom, hope for a new trial, hope for a pardon, hope for salvation, hope for life instead of death.

Already a winner of several prestigious awards including the 1998 Sundance's Grand Jury Prize, "The Farm" is a 1999 Oscar nominee for Feature Documentary. The 93-minute film is produced and directed by Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack, along with Co-Director, Wilbert Rideau, who is a "lifer," a convicted murderer, and is also the editor of the inmate-produced magazine, The Angolite Magazine.

It is through Rideau's contacts and his long association with Garbus (she produced a 1996 film at this prison with Rideau) that the cameras have unprecedented and incredible access to this notorious maximum-security prison in Louisiana. We seem to be everywhere, watching the inmates farm, study law, broadcast music, and receive health care. This prison is huge. There are 1800 civilian workers, a small employee-town, six large complexes, and 18,000 acres of working farmland. Once an 18th century slave plantation, named for the slaves from Angola, Africa, this serene agricultural place is a business for Warden Burl Cain. "It costs $10,000 dollars a day to feed 5000 men." He will pay them between 4 cents and 21 cents an hour to work, "workin' all day so they're tired at night." This warden cares for them, forgives them, but firmly believes in capital punishment. But mostly, for him, this is a place of business.

Yet Garbus and Stack's ever-present camera catches outrageous human moments. A young new "lifer" comforts his tearful mother on her first visit. A convicted rapist's face looks blankly into the beyond. After years of preparing for his parole hearing, he is, within moments, cavalierly denied parole. A model prisoner, who has already spent 25 years at "the farm" for armed robbery, and now is a new "trustee," openly expresses bountiful enthusiasm.

We watch the quiet sobbing of inmates listening to the last, but peaceful thoughts of "Bones" Theriot, dying of cancer. "Bishop" Tannelhill, waiting for a pardon, preaches with glee. A death row inmate looks strangely at the camera; he grins, believing to the last that he will live. These men see time in a very different way than we do. Life here is held together by the deep belief for a better day, whether tomorrow or twenty years from tomorrow.

Images of black men carrying hoes, white men with rifles sitting atop horses remind us that not much has changed in this part of the country. But the filmmakers avoid tempted distractions, such as focusing on Louisiana's judicial system of severe sentences or the physical and abusive violence that plagues any prison. They could have pursued more "upside" stories such as Angola's infamous inmate rodeo. Referred tenderly as "the farm," this penitentiary has been the subject or setting of many other films, books, and articles. But here the filmmakers stay the course they have set. There is a harsher brutality to uncover, amazing human optimism to discover. How the inmates cope, how they hope to their last breath makes us ask ourselves questions about forgiveness, rehabilitation, and yes, a humane penal system.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Mike McElreath can be reached via e-mail as MikeM@uwyo.edu[Picture of letter and envelope]