“If you actually listen to people, they will talk to you.”

GIDEON’S ARMY, an award winning documentary that premiered at Sundance Film Festival and on HBO in 2013, follows the stories of three young public defenders who are part of a small group of idealistic lawyers in the Deep South.

The main characters work to challenge the assumptions that drive a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point.  They struggle against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads; even the most committed often give up in their first year.

The director of Gideon’s Army, Dawn Porter, recently spoke at the Columbia Journalism School during Film Fridays. These are some highlights from the conversation, led by professor Betsy West.

THE FILM

  • Before becoming a filmmaker Dawn Porter was a lawyer and worked as the Director of News Standards and Practices at ABC News, and Vice President of Standards and Practices at A&E Networks.  Now she calls herself a “recovering lawyer.” Working in the ethics department of a major network is where she says she “got the bug.”
  • The film was shot over the course of three years. The film was cut from approximately 100 hours of footage, then made into a four-hour rough cut, trimmed down to two hours, then finally to a running time of an hour and 36 minutes.

THE STORY

  • Porter initially wanted to tell a story about how public defenders train to do their job. As soon as she got to know some of these young lawyers, she realized the story was about them.
  • Two main questions for her characters were: ‘How can you do this?’ and ‘How can you represent these people?,’ questions that public defenders often get from people around them.
  • It’s hard to choose characters. You have to pick the people with the best stories who will also give you access. “We chose people whose families agreed to participate,” said Porter.

THE CREW

  • You need to think carefully about who you hire to be your crew. “You want people that are technically skilled, but who also care,” said Porter.

ACCESS

  • Porter’s access to her characters and in the court rooms would be a dream for most documentary filmmakers. When asked how she cultivated this level of intimacy Porter said: “If you actually listen to people, they will talk to you. You’ve got to look them in the eye and pay attention.”
  • She also said how important it is to hang out and spend time with your characters. Porter lives in New Jersey and the film was shot in the southern part of the US,  so when she was unable to travel, she asked her local crew to hang out.
  • You have to be persistent. “I’m very stubborn,” she said. It took one year of negotiating access with Travis, one of her three main characters, for him to agree to be filmed.
  • If you are looking to film in a court it’s always important to read the local rules. Allowances for shooting in a courtroom change from state to state, so don’t make any assumptions until you’ve read the local rules.
  • Being polite is crucial. “Manners go a long way,” said Porter. “And they go a long way in the south.”
  • In order to shoot inside one of the courtrooms in the film Porter had to file a motion which the judge then heard. After the judge heard her motion the crew was allowed to film- under many restrictions. As time passed, the judge gave them more and more allowances. By the end of filming, they were allowed to use four cameras and three mics, including even a mic on the judge’s desk.
  • You also have to realize that sometimes you’re not the right person to request the access. Put your ego aside and think about which member of the crew is more likely to get permission from a judge or any particular character.

ACTIVISM

  • As journalists, our job is to tell stories. If you’re going to also be an activist and push for a particular cause, that’s a decision you need to make.  “I feel like my contribution is by showing the film to people that need to see it, because you can trigger a conversation,” said Porter.  You usually do this kind of film because you care about the subject, but being an activist is a full time job and may limit your role as a journalist.  You need to decide how much of an activist you do or don’t want to be.
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