The Farm: Angola, USA

on January 17, 1998 by Ray Greene
   The only possible logic behind the fact that "The Farm: Angola, USA" split the Sundance documentary prize with the far superior "Frat House" is that, in this case, the Sundance documentary jurists were putting their seal of approval on a cause, rather than a movie. Passed off as a daring inside expose of one of America's most notorious prisons, "The Farm" is a film that scratches an interesting surface, but so timidly as to leave the viewer frustrated, and wishing for more.
   Six prisoners in various stages of what will amount for most of them to a life sentence behind bars are tracked over the course of a pivotal year. After decades of incarceration, old-timers Bones and Bishop are both on the verge of very different forms of release: Bishop because of the parole he's been awarded for his evangelical commitment to helping other inmates find God, Bones owing to the inoperable cancer that's consuming him before our eyes. For John, a convicted murderer in his early 30s, the outcome is less certain; in the midst of mounting an appeal for clemency related to his vicious crimes, he faces long odds and death by lethal injection if his legal maneuvers fail.
   Vincent and Ashanti are both coming up for parole, and would have reason for optimism in a different social climate. For George, who has just commenced the first year of a life sentence, simply adjusting to the likelihood that he may never spend another hour in the outside world is struggle enough.
   There are a handful of shining moments in this otherwise overlong film. Bishop's bible-thumping fervor as he preaches to a roomful of born-again prisoners is a highlight, and an extraordinary parole hearing, in which an inmate's carefully prepared and reasonable brief is hurriedly dismissed as soon as he leaves the room, is such an appalling example of rubber stamp judgment that it plays like political pornography. But moments of insight are few and far between in "The Farm," which too often settles for a banal, public service announcement viewpoint, and even occasionally leaves significant details dangling. While the hopelessness chronicled in "The Farm" makes the film noteworthy as a piece of propaganda, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that filmmakers Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack have taken moviegoers on a journey that stops well short of its announced destination. Case dismissed.    Produced and directed by Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack. A Gabriel Films release. Documentary. Running time: 107 min.
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