Can you still be an Unsung Auteur if you have a host of Emmy Awards and Oscar nominations to your name? Does that not denote appropriate levels of appreciation and acknowledgement? If you are a documentary filmmaker, then the answer is a resounding no. Despite their often stunning work, documentarians are among the least heralded directors on the lowest levels of the cinematic totem pole. With only a very small handful of documentaries finding their way in front of large audiences, most documentaries are seen by only small groups of people, and never really enter the zeitgeist. There are, of course, exceptions (in the form of the breakout, game-changing successes of the likes of Michael Moore, Davis Guggenheim, Morgan Spurlock and others), but for the most part, documentarians always struggle for respect, support and attention.
So while Liz Garbus has indeed been the recipient of multiple awards of many varieties, she is hardly a household name, even in filmmaking circles. Her work, however, is routinely superb, and her resume is dotted with stellar examples of non-fiction storytelling. Born in 1970, Garbus grew up in New York City. She is the daughter of civil rights attorney Martin Garbus and writer, therapist, and social worker Ruth Meitin Garbus. Though Garbus graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and semiotics from Brown University, she had a long-held fascination with the filmmaking medium, taking video production classes while at college, and even making a documentary while in high school about her class’s final day before graduating. After college, Garbus worked as an intern at Miramax (way before that very name instantly inspired dread and disgust) before taking a job working for filmmaker Jonathan Stack.
The duo collaborated on 1998’s The Farm: Angola USA, a searing exploration of life in Louisiana’s notorious maximum security prison, which won The Grand Jury Prize at The Sundance Film Festival, was nominated for an Oscar, and picked up two Emmy Awards. The critical success of this punchy, haunting drama instantly set Liz Garbus up as a compelling talent to watch, and she began rolling through a succession of meaningful, beautifully constructed, and highly authentic documentaries on a range of fascinating subjects: the first black woman put to death in the modern era (2002’s The Execution Of Wanda Jean); WW2 and The Holocaust (2003’s The Nazi Officer’s Wife); female incarceration (2003’s highly regarded mini-breakout Girlhood); traumatic brain injury (2007’s Coma); and her own rabble-rousing father (2009’s Shouting Fire: Stories From The Edge Of Free Speech).
Moving into slightly more starry territory, Liz Garbus found considerable success with her next batch of films. Utterly fascinating from beginning to end, 2011’s artfully made Bobby Fischer Against The World details the highly unusual life and times of the renowned eponymous chess prodigy. The inner life of deeply troubled movie star supreme Marilyn Monroe is expertly unpacked by those who knew her, along with readings from her personal journals, in the absorbing and sensitively handled Love, Marilyn. 2015’s What Happened, Miss Simone? inspired a major rediscovery of the work of singer Nina Simone. “I didn’t know it at the outset, but this is the film that I’d been practicing my whole life to make,” Liz Garbus told FilmInk. “When you’re telling the story of a person, you have many choices of what you will include and what to leave out. This isn’t a biopic; we’re channeling what was important about Nina as an artist, as an activist, as a performer, as a mother, and as a human being. It was about telling the story of her soul and her passions, and her suffering.”
Though an Oscar-nominated success, Garbus moved on from celebrity portraits after What Happened, Miss Simone?, instead focusing on singularly gritty subject matter like childhood mental illness (2018’s A Dangerous Son), the criminal justice system (2019’s Who Killed Garrett Phillips?), and voter suppression in the US (2020’s All In: The Fight For Democracy).Garbus also worked effectively in television, with the gripping, beautifully tailored 2020 true crime series I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, and on episodes of The Innocence Files and The Handmaid’s Tale. In 2020, Garbus also made a rare detour into narrative storytelling with the gritty and darkly intense Lost Girls, which boasted a bravura turn from the great Amy Ryan and followed the true life story of a determined mother investigating her own daughter’s disappearance. Wholly assured and emotionally resonant, Lost Girls certainly points to a possible fictional feature sideline for Garbus, who returned to the celebrity portrait in 2021 with the gorgeous Becoming Cousteau, a lovely, ahem, deep dive into the world of famed oceanographer, environmentalist and explorer Jacques Cousteau.
A highly skilled – and still relatively under-celebrated despite her swag of awards documentary maker with a fierce commitment to social issues, Liz Garbus is a master at tapping into the interior worlds of her subjects. “I feel fiercely connected all of my subjects,” Garbus told FilmInk in 2015. “It’s like an intense love affair, or more like a marriage where there’s good and there’s bad. I gravitate towards complex, difficult characters. The Farm was about people who had committed the most horrendous crimes imaginable, and what I realised was that even those people aren’t equal to their worst actions. They have goodness in them even if they have done this thing that’s beyond redemption in everyone’s eyes. I look for those contradictions.”
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.