The Farm: Angola USA tells the story of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a massive maximum-security prison for the most violent offenders in Louisiana, where a life sentence means a term with no possibility of parole. Once a slave plantation, Angola was converted to a prison at the end of the Civil War.
In making the film, inmate Wilbert Rideau was the motivating force, picking six prisoners and chronicling their lives on film, from a 22-year-old just starting a life sentence for murder to a prison veteran dying of lung cancer.
The prison's warden, Burl Caine, gave the filmmakers complete access to the facility. He explains, "We wanted to really truly capture what prison is really about and tell it like it is."
Rideau was a natural for the assignment. He has been telling it like it is for 25 years as the editor of The Angolite, the prison newspaper. His career didn't begin until after he was put behind bars for committing murder in 1961.
"I had the need to redefine myself," says Rideau. "I didn't want a crime to be the final definition of Wilbert Rideau."
That kind of redemption is the theme of the documentary. One finds it in religion; another, in community service. But Rideau knows many who don't find it at all.
"This is one group of human beings [where] you can predict what they will be doing 20 years from today, at this exact date, right here, doing the very same thing," he says. "It's a timeless world. The only thing that matters is what you do with it, and most of them won't do much of anything with it, other than just die slowly."
More than half of the 5,000 prisoners in Angola are serving life sentences. By one estimate, 85 percent of the prison population will die there.
"In our state, there is no hearing," explains warden Caine. "Once you're in jail for life, you're for life. And I think the law is too harsh. Prison should be for predators and not for dying old men."
The only way out for Rideau is a governor's pardon, and the Oscar spotlight could work against him.
"It's made it more difficult," says Rideau, "because the way to get out of prison is through anonymity. That way, when you ask for clemency or ask for a break, there's nobody to oppose you. They've forgotten about you."
On Oscar night Sunday, Rideau will be behind barbed wire. But he and the inmates will watch the Oscar telecast. Win or lose, there will be a celebration, says the warden: "We're going to not work one day. We'll have ice cream for everybody and have a Coke for everybody."
If Rideau was free to accept the ward, to walk to the podium at the Academy Awards ceremony, what would he say in his speech?
"This is for the people here," he replies. "It's for them. The people who live, work, fight, and die here. I mean, it's for them."
The Farm: Angola USA already has won several awards, including one from the National Society of Film Critics. It's among five documentaries nominated for the Oscar.