The new Netflix original documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? debuts on Friday, June 26. It’s from filmmaker Liz Garbus, who earned an Oscar nomination almost two decades ago for her first feature documentary. The Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison (1998), which she co-directed with Jonathan Stack, also won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary and Netflix recently added the film to its library.
Angola Prison in Louisiana is the biggest maximum security prison in the country. This is where the most dangerous criminals go and where parole hearings are a mere formality to an official denial. 85% of all its inmates will die inside. A small video crew was given unprecedented access to the inmates. Six were chosen from 5,000 to give a portrait of life in the facility known as “The Farm” over the course of a year.
Two of the men continue the fight to prove their innocence. Two veterans have found redemption in personal transformations, one man as a prison activist, the other a preacher. Two men prepare for death – one facing execution, the other eaten away by cancer. It’s unlikely any of them will emerge from prison alive.
What begins as a traditional documentary transforms into an investigation into the human spirit, hope in the face of hopelessness. We see a parole board that passes judgment before the applicant even makes his case and makes their decision before the door has closed behind him. Yet this is not so much a work of investigative journalism as a cultural study. The contrast between the happy face the prison officials put on and the grim reality of its inmates becomes its defining character and one comes away with the alien atmosphere of this world, captured in the sight of an incongruously chipper clown who wanders the halls on Christmas Eve to cheer up the prisoners in isolation. On the surface this seems like a model prison, a well-integrated, safe, supportive environment—in fact, its history of violence is never mentioned—but under the surface of normalcy is a mix of doom and hope. At moments quite affecting (the film opens and closes on burials), The Farm is almost subtly surreal.
Netflix is clearly investing in Garbus. In addition to The Farm, they recently added her 2003 documentary Girlhood, a portrait of two teenage girls in Baltimore’s juvenile justice system.