Liz Garbus ’92 initially saw herself pursuing a career in law. But as a semiotics and history student at Brown, she had long studied the ability of images to impart social, political, and emotional messages. So, inspired by the scenes she encountered working on a voter registration drive soon after graduation, she began pursuing filmmaking.
Now, Garbus has multiple Emmy awards and two Academy Award nominations under her belt. Her films have covered topics from the New York Times’ coverage of Trump’s first year in office, the life of Nina Simone, to the stories of inmates at the largest maximum security prison in the United States. She co-founded Story Syndicate in 2019, a film and television production company that supports established and up-and-coming filmmakers in pursuing projects that inspire social good. And following that mission, she is now executive producing a documentary for National Geographic about Dr. Anthony Fauci.
In this Q&A, Garbus, one of the inaugural speakers in Watson’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Initiative for Documentary Film and Social Progress, discusses documentary as a medium for social change, her narrative drama debut, and how her time at Brown continues to influence her work today.
Why were you drawn to documentary as a filmmaking medium?
When I graduated from Brown, I thought that I would go to law school. The summer after I graduated, I worked on a voter registration drive modeled after the Freedom Riders. Driving across America, I was out in the world in a way that I really hadn’t been before. I was talking to people who had not been a part of my immediate experience at Brown or growing up in New York City. After that experience, I found that I wanted to find a way to be more of a direct mouthpiece, or megaphone, for the voices that couldn’t do that themselves.
I had made films when I was at Brown, but my first foray into developing my own film project involved a collaboration that I formed with an inmate journalist at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison in Louisiana. He had been writing stories about the lives of people behind bars. Through this collaboration with him, I started making films. I had always been interested in the criminal justice system, and had considered pursuing a path in law, but here was another way of telling those stories and advocating for a more compassionate, a more nuanced understanding of the justice system. The films that I've made since are on a wide range of subjects but that's how it all began.
This fall, you spoke with Stacey Abrams at a virtual event hosted by the Watson Institute about your documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy. At the event, Abrams reflected on watching the film with her 14-year-old niece and said that the chief purpose of a documentary like this is “to give you an hour and 30 minutes of information that makes you want to spend a lifetime trying to act.” How do you think documentary films can be used as a medium to affect social change?
Once you pull the curtain back on issues which have been largely hidden or issues that you know people really have to seek out if they wanted to understand — for instance, understanding the various factors that go into giving someone a life or death sentence, or the various factors that have contributed to your polling place closing — and you show the kind of the history and politics of race and class that go into those experiences, you can change the way a person experiences their own life. Because when you’re armed with information, it can change your behavior.
Your first narrative studio film, Lost Girls, was released on Netflix in March of last year. Based on the true story of a string of murders of young female sex workers told in Robert Kolker’s book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, the film follows a mother as she looks for her missing daughter. Could you describe the process of shifting into narrative work, and how that felt different or similar to working on a documentary?
There are a lot of similarities in the shaping of a story. When you’re making a fiction narrative film based on a true story, or even when you're making a doc, which is a true story, there is this process of shaping your story into a 90 minute or two hour piece of work. You have to find your story, through a process of eliminating some sets of circumstances and highlighting others.
The crucial process of finding that North Star that guides your story — one that is informed by an understanding of truth and the themes of the story — teaches you what you can include, what you can excavate, what you should emotionally highlight, and what you should not. You have to get very close to the core of the story in order to find the truth of it, because those decisions of what is included and left out both are crucial in the narrative and the documentary form. All of that amounts to the filmmakers point of view, which is what dominates each genre. And in both genres, the huge responsibility of telling the stories of real people is one that I do not take lightly.
In 2019, you founded Story Syndicate with your husband, filmmaker Dan Cogan. What is the mission of Story Syndicate?
I founded Story Syndicate with my husband, who was running a social impact film fund called Impact Partners. With the multiplication of streaming platforms we saw that there was a real appetite for documentary films. Projects would come to us that we could not take on, but we were really interested in supporting filmmakers, and felt that with our history in the business we could give other filmmakers a real leg up. Our mission with Story Syndicate was to nurture other talents, other directors, to kind of create a constellation of storytellers who care about the world and want to do something good, while also looking to entertain.
Earlier this month, it was announced that you would Executive Produce a documentary about Anthony Fauci for National Geographic. How does it feel to work on this project that is about a figure who has played such an important role in the COVID-19 pandemic?
It has been really exciting to have cruised by his side throughout this process. I can't say too much about the project yet, but I’ve been really excited to support the filmmakers who are there with him. It’s an honor to tell his story — he is quite a fascinating man, from his work during the AIDS epidemic to today during COVID, being one of the few trusted voices in a very polarized environment. Telling his story is really an awesome responsibility.
How does your time at Brown continue to influence your work today?
When I was at Brown I majored in History and Semiotics. And in many ways, my career is an outgrowth of those interests. In Semiotics we studied the cultural and social and political meaning of images, or their juxtaposition to text. That kind of critical thinking still informs my filmmaking, and my love of history of course also informs my filmmaking. In that way, my time at Brown was actually quite a potent cocktail for my career. I was introduced to so many radical filmmakers that I had never heard of, and was taught by amazing filmmakers. I really, really had my mind blown often.
Just that I think that documentary filmmaking and nonfiction journalism is a really fulfilling field. And the JFK Jr. film initiative at the Watson Institute, which brings together these topics through conversations with filmmakers, is terrific.
--Elise Ryan '21