The strength of The Farm Angola, USA is in the way it simply lays down the facts and lets the audience interpret. That's the best kind of documentary if you ask me. It's very simply done and it effectively captures the lives of inmates inside a maximum security prison in Angola, Louisiana.
Seven men are filmed and followed throughout their attempts at getting parole, filing appeals or just plain trying to survive. The prison they're in is known to be the bloodiest in the state and most of the inmates will probably die from either being killed or from old age or illnesses. It's a bleak situation that is contrasted between new arrivals and longtime inmates. As hard as it may be to believe, you sympathize for these men despite the crimes they've committed. Liz Garbus, Wilbert Rideau and Johnathan Stack who directed this documentary have done this by simply giving the floor to these prisoners and letting them speak their minds.
When inmates explain the crimes they've committed, there's no sugarcoating. The directors deserve credit for having the courage to make a film like this while sitting in the same room as a murderer and giving him the respect to allow him to speak. The man in question for this particular part is John A. Brown, Jr. who committed robbery and murder.
The prison this documentary is filmed in has prisoners work on a neighboring farm every day except for weekends. So like a regular job but they're only paid $.04 an hour. The farm itself is a multimillion dollar operation and obviously that's pretty easy with such inexpensive labor. I wish the film would have explored this aspect a bit more because it'd be interesting to know who owns that farm and how they negotiate having prisoners to work on it.
What's really mindblowing is that Angola, Louisiana is actually named after Angola, Africa because that's where plantation owners got their slaves. The farm that prisoners work on now used to be worked on by slaves. It could be argued that this system is a form of neo-slavery with the top dogs benefiting from cheap labour that the prisoners provide. One of the prison guards argues that it's good for the prisoners to get paid, be outside and work. While I think he's right, not having a choice in the matter changes everything. But then again, these men committed crimes against society and their rights to choose have been revoked. I think it's wrong though that someone is profiting off the backs of these prisoners all the same.
Racism is a theme that is explored and it's hard to believe that there are still some people who can think in such an ignorant way. The beauty of this as I said is that the directors lets the viewer build their own message without any interference beyond a bit of zooming for emphasis. We get an unfiltered and uncomfortable situation which raises emotions way more than any kind of scripted scene.
A particularly depressing scene is during Christmas when the staff organize a visit with the isolated inmates at the prison.
A man accompanied by a clown goes to each prisoner, asking them how they are. Literally a clown who looks like the unhappiest clown around. While it's valiant to attempt to bring cheer to depressed isolated prisoners, it's hard to believe how terrible and hopeless you feel as a human being after seeing this.
I suppose the question that The Farm: Angola, USA leaves me with is whether or not our justice system is an effective tool. Is it effective at keeping in dangerous criminals? I would say yes, there are very few inmates escaping successfully so they have that part down pat. What's missing though is a system that rehabilitates. Not only that but a system that rewards rehabilitation. With the advent of private prisons in the US, the situation only seems to be getting worse. For a film from 1998, The Farm: Angola, USA is still incredibly relevant and might be for a very long time.