In light of her most recent endeavour, we sat down with Liz to discuss her critically acclaimed documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?
Nina Simone was regarded as an enigma and a genius, speaking to minorities worldwide who did not have a voice. Garbus in turn made this documentary intent on tearing up any signs of appropriation and misinterpretations of Simone. Check out our revealing chat with this advocate of conscience, the brilliant filmmaker, Liz Garbus.
A really great documentary, Liz, congratulations. There’s a lot of moving parts to this person and her life. I’m sure you’ve been asked this already in your press interviews leading up to the film, but what initially attracted you to such an enigma and someone who’s been so overly appropriated?
What first attracted me was the music. Even without knowing much about Nina’s life-story, where I was as a fan before starting this film I had the sense from her music of the depth and the complexity of her life experience – you feel it when you listen. Her music is very cathartic in a way, so there’s clearly a person behind that music who has a depth of experience that’s fascinating. When I first heard her, I instinctively knew there’s probably a lot there to explore and to talk about, so when I started to probe her life and her history and the various aspects in play – psychology, politics, music – I realised there’s quite a fascinating story that was incredibly relevant and not well understood by even her most adoring friends.
To be honest, it took me a few days to recover. I kind of saw the film in another way; I thought there was a larger story here, a larger narrative. There’s a very complex person, but I do feel that underneath it all there was a story that maybe hasn’t been talked about as much, about mental health and eccentricity.
I also feel that even her own people abandoned her throughout her life, they kind of didn’t know what to do with her.
Yeah, with the mental health, when I said ‘psychology’ that’s what I’m referring to; the mental health aspect of it is a huge aspect. She grew up in a glass box, so to speak, she was, as you know, estranged from her own community and the white community as a child – that tends to happen with a child-prodigy.
I made a film about Bobby Fischer and it’s a very similar story. Being a prodigy like that is a very difficult childhood to survive because you’re participating in social experiences and growing up the way that your peers are – they’re always a little outside of the world. Then of course choosing the partners that she did in life – that marriage to Andy Stroud – and then having that inner turmoil; she talks about hearing voices, manic depression, suicidal thoughts, violence from her husband as well – none of that being understood as mental illness. As her husband says in the film, they took her to hospital and went through testing, but everybody said she was fine. So, how did that happen?
We didn’t understand bipolar in the mid 60s/late 60s, or what they call manic depression, the way we do today. She suffered untreated and not understood by those around her, so people called her ‘difficult’ and ‘crazy’ or whatever. These were all manifestations of her inner turmoil. Of course, there were the inner turmoils of the times – you can’t look at her life without understanding the pressures of the movements and the pressures of being in the movement and being a young mother and being abused. At the same time, her husband was her manager and wanted her career to be going in a different direction. All of these pressures on someone whose psychology is quite fragile – evolving in that glass box – it’s a pressure box but it’s very fragile.
“Nina, being very dark-skinned, full-lipped, which was different from the conception of caucasian beauty.”
Could you go as far as to say that there was a stigmatisation going on from her own community? What I’m trying to get at is the irony that she was a voice for the civil rights movement, but there seemed to be a bit of racism from her own side; stigmatisation of her in her own community. It seems inherent in all of us, this bias attitude towards individuals or our collective acceptance of people regardless of colour, creed, wherever you are.
Is your observation that she was alienated amongst her own people?
I think that’s true. There are classic debates that go on in the African-American community and activist community about what is the proper kind of engagement; do you keep one foot on one side of the fence and one on the other?
Of course there are debates about violence or non-violence in the movement – these were the classic debates. And then, as in Nina’s song, Four Women, all these different shades of skin-colour have different cultural identities that are very complex, and Nina, being very dark-skinned, full-lipped, was different from the conception of caucasian beauty. All of these factors are very complex and certainly create division within communities of colour and communities of white people.
How did you feel about the film the first time you watched it in a public environment?
I felt proud of it. I feel that the film channels a rawness and honesty that Nina conveys, there was never a dishonest moment in her life. I feel the film conveys her complexity and her honesty. I feel that the music is given the space that it needs to be given, because the music in her life-story is actually quite narrative; it tells a story because every story she morphs into her life experience. I feel proud to share it with people who have loved her music and love all the facets of her.
What happened to the husband? I was really dying to know what happened to him.
Well, he died in 2012. He remarried, I met his second wife and she certainly did not acknowledge or have knowledge of the violence that took place in the marriage with him and Nina, not with me anyway. He and his second wife went on to set-up a private detective agency, so that’s what they did.
That’s quite ironic. But, he was a policeman wasn’t he?
That’s right, he was a policeman when he met Nina, so he was coming from a very particular culture. The thing to understand about him that their daughter, Lisa, has told me is, here’s a man whose grandfather was Dutch and white, his grandmother was black, he was the fifth son of a family in Virginia, all of those brothers became cops. The environment in which Andy Stroud grew up would have been very charged and also leaves him with the pain of the history of racism and slavery in our country [U.S.A]. So there is context for his behaviour as well. Not excuses, but contexts.
I just felt incredibly sorry for Nina, that’s how I was left feeling. Just this lone soul, this nomadic woman, just not understanding anything and not feeling connected.
Moving on to the kinds of characters that you commit yourself to and portray, justice seems like a common theme in your films – I’ve seen a couple of them and they’re fantastic. They’re always very striking. Your father is a well-renowned First Amendment lawyer – Martin Garbus. The research that I’ve done on him has just been fascinating and his history is a who’s-who of characters over the years of politics and law. The reason I wanted to tell you is because you seem attracted to these tortured characters, like Bobby Fischer and Aunt Diane and Nina Simone. I’m sure your father has had a very profound impact on your work?
Absolutely, he’s always been a fighter for the underdog, issues around race and incarceration were regularly discussed around my dinner table growing up. I was included in the various conversations with all the folks that would come over to the house. I was part of that. He had so many fascinating cases in the 60s with political activists, like The Weather Underground activist group and plenty of other groups – not to mention folks like Lenny Bruce and National Congress – all over the world people fighting for justice. So these were very much part of what I was growing up with and they feel very much part of my DNA.
Going back to the question of justice, is that the foundation of all your work, or is it more just curiosity and discovering where it’s going to take you?
I’m interested in those grey areas of human psychology and the darkness in the soul, and understanding that darkness in the way that it doesn’t define a human being and it’s relatable in all of us. If you look at the people in The Farm, the first film I made, in the prison, you reach across the isle and understand how we’re all the same in our search for hope as we wake-up everyday and how we make meaning of our lives, inside or outside prison walls. I think we’re connected in this way, to people like Nina Simone and Bobby Fischer and Aunt Diane, folks who have been associated with that kind of darkness or even violence in some of the cases that I mentioned. So, is that justice or just deeper understanding? I’m also interested in great stories, I think those kind of dark areas and people’s journeys through them are great things to tell.
“I’m interested in those grey areas of human psychology and the darkness in the soul, and understanding that darkness in the way that it doesn’t define a human being and it’s relatable in all of us.”
And the way that you can tell these stories, traditionally, is documentaries. I’m interested to know how first-hand accounts of news and story-telling through social-media and other channels have allowed people much more immediate access to news and stories. Do you think that’s changed the dynamic of documentary making.
I think it’s interesting. I think, yes, in some ways, because of the way news cycles so fast and people have a short attention span, documentaries are taking the place of real reporting that used to go on – some, not necessarily mine. If you look at a film like The Hunting Ground, which is about sexual assault, andThe Invisible War, that was about rape in the military, those documentaries are delivering the kind of in-depth views of world-events that the media has left behind, and they pick up the pieces there. My documentary is looking at a human being and her art, so I think it’s different.
Most of the stories in your documentaries are American-based. They’re very domesticated in a sense, at least the ones I can think of, they come from the American heartland – the stories and all the characters. I’m interested to know, you said that you grew up talking about these issues at the dinner table, you have such an incredibly varied background, especially with your father, what is your take on America now and where it sits?
It’s not a very glorious time for America right now. We’re steeped in problems. We’re steeped in guns. We seem able to ban trans-fats in our society but not guns. Racism is rife as it has always been. The militancy of anti-integrationists. White supremacy has become its own terror-force in our country. We have a political arena that is so narrow and closed to real change. It’s a very dark time in our history, and of course America’s foreign policy and the residual effects of Bush’s invasion of Iraq has really destroyed the middle-east.
Do you think that some of your movies perhaps reflect this dark psyche of America?
Well, yes, I think there’s a reason why the Nina Simone documentary is so popular right now and why it’s speaking to people. I think the issues that she was speaking about, the cancers in American society, are true today.
These are very dark tales that you portray, how do you have the stomach or the strength to empathise with these stories, especially when you’re working on them for so long – sometimes two, three or five years?
I think there’s just also great beauty there; with Nina there’s so much beauty and triumph in her art and in her ability to survive. She kept on keeping on – and her honesty as well. So I think there’s a great deal of uplift in her story and there’s healing and catharsis in her music.
Reynishverfi Beach, Iceland
The black sand beach on the Southern Coast of Iceland. Its a place where the earth feels alive, in a constant state of flux and change.
Our Columbia County, NY, Farmhouse
We have a place in upstate NY where life is peaceful, filled with fires great food friends family and board games. When the light is right it looks like Umbria, Italy.