Since the late 1990s, Oscar-nominated American documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus has directed and produced a succession of internationally renowned, socially-concerned feature length and short documentaries that explore diverse subject matter – from the entertainment industry to the American judicial system and religious terrorism – that is characterized by a poignant sentimentality, sharp sincerity and revealing intimacy that has come to be a defining trademark of Garbus’s work.
The daughter of legendary American attorney Martin Garbus whose involvement in leading first amendment cases lead to his appointment by President Jimmy Carter to report on the Nicaraguan elections, Garbus followed in her family’s ambitious footsteps by graduating magna cum laude from Brown University in 1992 with a major in History and Semiotics. In 1998, she co-founded an independent production company, Moxie Firecracker Films, with her fellow Brown Alumni Rory Kennedy, followed by a lengthy and highly successful career in the film industry which resulted in Garbus being one of the 105 people invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2008.
Garbus’s directorial debut documentary film, The Farm: Angola USA (1998), detailing the daily life of inmates at Angola prison in Louisiana, including several in depth interviews with prisoners, one of whom is sentenced to death, introduced Garbus’s cuttingly raw and agonizingly honest approach to storytelling that deviates from modes of narration that attempt to soften often disturbing societal truths. The unabashed courage that Garbus displays in her sensitively harrowing exploration of criminal social stigmas, as embodied in the tagline, ‘Enter the gateway to hell and meet the men who call it home’, garnered the filmmaker her first Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, as well as numerous awards including the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and two Emmy Awards.
Garbus continued in her examination of the American justice system in Girlhood (2003), depicting the lives of two female inmates, Shanae and Megan, in a Maryland juvenile detention centre through an examination of the psychological antecedents that triggered their criminal tendencies, from the absence of loving parental figures and subjection to violent rape, to excessive drug and alcohol use and unstable home environments. Garbus’s 2003 historical war documentary, The Nazi Officer’s Wife, secured the director her first Primetime Emmy nomination for the astonishing story of Austrian-born Edith Hahn-Beer. Narrated by Susan Sarandon and Julia Ormond, the film uses personal photos, newsreel footage and interviews with Hahn-Beer and her family to detail the journey of the young woman who managed to survive the Nazi occupation in 1938 by overcoming detention in a labour camp, the deportation of her mother and abandonment by her boyfriend to finally spend her life as a secret Jew married to a Nazi Party Member.
The emergence of the 2010s signalled the filmmaker’s shift in subject matter to entertainment-oriented social figures, while retaining her signature style of acerbic social commentary, as exemplified in Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), chronicling the great Cold War rivalry between Chess grandmasters Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972. Opening the Premiere Documentary Section of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the film explores the enigmatic and tragic life of Fischer, one of the most infamous figures of the 20th century, from his difficult childhood, to his stratospheric career as word chess champion and his troubled years on the run as a fugitive. Garbus’s 2012 Love, Marilyn, featuring a star-studded cast – including Elizabeth Banks, Viola Davis, Lindsay Lohan, Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood – reading and commenting on Monroe’s memories and private writings discovered in the home of her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, won Garbus the Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking Award at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2013.
Garbus’s latest films are considered some of her most impressive, as she develops into a truly seasoned and reputed director, with her most significant recent release What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015), garnering Garbus her second Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, a Grammy for Best Music Film, and nominations for 6 Primetime Emmys. The biographical documentary about the music legend Nina Simone, combines unseen archival footage and interviews with Simone’s family and friends to present an intricate and subversive portrayal of a complex woman that captures not only Simone’s extraordinary musical career and turbulent home life, but most strikingly her role as a civil rights activist. As opposed to producing the documentary in a basic, straightforward style, Garbus intensely evokes the essence of Simone’s character and her deeply powerful and sensitive nature: “I’m not so concerned about including every biographical detail of someone’s life. I’m concerned with finding the heart of their story.”
Garbus’s most recent directorial work, Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper (2016), paints a portrait of one of America’s most famed and public families through an amalgamation of archival footage, home videos and present-day musings. The intimate documentary features Journalist and CNN reporter Anderson Cooper engaging in poignant and candid discussions with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, about her striking legacy as a fashion icon, reflecting the director’s consistently sensitive and multifaceted portrayal of the intricacies of various human experiences – Garbus celebrates and sheds light on societies prominent matters, but she never ignores them.