Since 1998, Moxie Firecracker Films, the company that Liz Garbus and partner Rory Kennedy run out of Park Slope, has produced award-winning documentaries covering topics ranging from modern day railroad hobos to the prison at Abu Ghraib. This month, HBO started showing Garbus’s newest project “Coma,” which follows four people with severe brain injuries. GO Brooklyn’s Juliana Bunim checked in with Garbus about making movies and doing it in Brooklyn.
GO Brooklyn: Both your office and home are in Park Slope. Where’s the stroller?
Liz Garbus: In 2002, my husband and I moved to Park Slope from Chelsea to have more space. It’s a media favorite right now to make fun of Park Slope and the babies, but it is actually a wonderful neighborhood for children and that’s all there is to it.
GO: “Coma” follows four individuals who experienced a traumatic brain injury. What was your objective in making this film?
LG: When Terri Schiavo’s case was really captivating America, it was clear that this was an issue that people felt very deeply about and that they got their morality mixed up in, despite actually understanding very little. What if we could be a fly on the wall and see what the families were really going through? No matter what you feel about the issue you have empathy for those families. That was the birth of the idea.
GO: In “Coma,” you follow the patients’ rehabilitation over the course of a year. How do they afford long-term care?
LG: After private insurance cuts patients off, they declare bankruptcy and are picked up by Medicaid. That way, the state will provide the money for rehab. I’m not a believer that they should rehab someone for years and years and use all the taxpayer dollars beyond a certain point. But I do believe at least that the first year after injury is a time that can determine the difference between enabling someone to have some quality of life versus simply languishing forever.
GO: How much leeway did you give the families to tell you enough is enough with the constant filming?
LG: For me, it’s an unspoken thing — you just build a relationship. I never had to lay down the exact parameters. There were times that Tom [one of the film’s main subjects] would get extremely agitated by us and would try and punch the camera. And there were cases where we felt we were agitating him and we left. We just tried to be human, and think about if it were our family, what would we do.
GO: How did you build a rapport with families who were going through such a highly emotional and traumatic experience?
LG: The relationship was built with a lot of time. We shot 175 to 200 hours of material over a year. We were there for the first time that Tom vocalized after his accident, and we wanted to be there for those key moments so we shot a lot. Through this very intense experience we ended up as part of the community with the doctors and the social workers and the therapists.
GO: How taxing was it on you to make this film?
LG: This was one of the hardest films I’ve ever made — and I’ve made films about the death penalty, AIDS, Abu Ghraib. And as a parent, this is a film about parents losing children in different ways and there were times it would make me sick to my stomach.
GO: You seem to make two kinds of films, depressing and really depressing. How do you balance filmmaking with your family life?
LG: I’m always drawn to making films that I think will make a difference, and I’ve been drawn to subject matter that’s difficult. I want to go to those places and I want to create dialogue. Brain injury is different [because] morality gets involved. It’s something you should discuss with your loved ones. Having a living will. I think there are these people that are living in this hidden darkness and one of the powerful parts of my films is to make that visible.
©2007 Community News Group
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