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Docs and the Law: Penn Program Mixes Digital Media and Legal Training

By Tamara Krinsky

Juan Garcia, a student in Professor Regina Austin's classes at the University of Pennsylvania Law School

When most law students see a class labeled "Documentaries and the Law" in the course guidebook, they assume it's part of a collection of classes for those interested in becoming entertainment lawyers. In Professor Regina Austin's classes at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, however, nonfiction filmmaking is viewed as a tool with which every attorney should be familiar.

Austin is the director of the Penn Program on Documentaries and the Law, through which she currently teaches two core courses and oversees a Media Lab where law students make their own films. The program's main objectives include analyzing and understanding law-genre documentaries, looking at the legal issues involved in making documentaries, and exploring the uses of nonfiction film as a tool of legal advocacy.

Austin, a longtime fan of nonfiction film, started using documentaries in her teaching decades ago because she was interested in ethnography, the branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures. She felt that documentaries helped to contextualize legal issues like human rights and corporate responsibility for her students. In the Fall 2004 term, she initiated a stand-alone "Documentaries and the Law" class, which she co-taught with reference librarian Merle Slyhoff, who had helped her amass an impressive collection of nonfiction films throughout her tenure.

Says Austin, "We wanted to take advantage of our extensive video library. Some attention was paid to the concerns of documentarians like consent--which is an ethical issue too--censorship and regulation of propaganda." The main focus, though, was on media literacy from a legal perspective: looking at what the makers of such documentaries were literally and figuratively telling their audiences about what it is that the law and lawyers do.

Victoria Cook, one of Austin's former students, was a guest speaker in that inaugural course. At the time, she was with the law firm of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz; she now works with Cinetic Media. Cook, along with several other former students, introduced Austin to the plethora of issues that entertainment lawyers confront in representing the various parties involved in making docs, which Austin then added to the class curriculum. Marc Simon (After Innocence; Nursery University) and Charles Wright, vice president and associate general counsel of A&E Entertainment, have since frequented her lecture hall, along with such filmmakers as Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Taxi to the Dark Side) and Noland Walker (Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story).

Austin has continued to expand the scope and depth of the program over the last five years. Through her own research, she has been exploring the topic of visual legal advocacy--the use of digital media to tell stories that advance the claims and causes of real clients. "I discovered that settlement brochures are documentaries," she maintains. "They are little summaries of cases-personal injury actions. Some of them have music, a lot of them have narrators. They are really interesting little videos."

She also came across clemency videos--pieces generally made on behalf of death row inmates. Some are made by lawyers, and some are made by filmmakers working for lawyers. According to Austin, the purpose of clemency videos is two-fold: They are a way to reach the ultimate decision maker, who in most cases is the state governor; and they are useful for conducting media campaigns to marshal support for a reduction or a commutation of a sentence.

Austin and her students decided to make their own clemency-style videos on behalf of non-capital defendants who had been arrested or incarcerated and were seeking pardons from the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. The Philadelphia-based Scribe Video Center was of assistance in the beginning when the program had no equipment of its own. Eventually Austin received a grant from the Provost's office to establish a modest Media Lab with cameras, audio equipment and Macs for editing. The program's first video was completed during the Spring 2007 term.

"I was lucky," says Austin. "I'm surrounded by folks who are generous with their desire to help, so they're willing to work with the students for less than the going rate. We have public interest lawyers who are slowly coming around to the view that this is something that they need to know about and that they need to offer their clients."

Don't expect to see these videos used regularly in a courtroom anytime soon. By and large, lawyers are very suspicious of video because of how easily images can be manipulated. Plus, the court generally wants to hear from live witnesses to give the other side the opportunity to cross-examine them, and to give the trier of fact (a.k.a. the judge or the jury) the chance to evaluate their demeanor. Video usually cannot serve as a substitute for that. Occasionally, a video of a witness's deposition testimony--an admission, an awkward moment--will be cued up during an opening or closing argument to reinforce a lawyers' point. But this is a far cry from showing a bona fide documentary.

The doc shorts that Austin and her students are making are generally being used in court-like or quasi-judicial settings, such as mediation and arbitration. Unlike most film schools, the program provides all the funding for the films based on the fact that the students are actually making videos for real people involved in actual cases. For example, Children Given One Strike: A Lifetime without Redemption, by Wendell F. Holland II and Nicole Samuels, looks at juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The Sugiarto Family Deferred Action Application, by Margie Smith, Karen Yamada and Anne-Sophie Ract, supports the asylum application of the Sugiarto family, ethnic Chinese Catholics who left Indonesia in the wake of the anti-Chinese riots of 1998 and were in danger of being deported from the United States. The video was also given to state senators to attempt to rally support.

While Austin is proud of the growth of her program, she is clear about the fact that she's not trying to start her own film school. Her priority is training the next generation of lawyers to read and respond to both their own films and others, and to be effective visual advocates. "I'm not really interested in training filmmakers because I think it's important for lawyers to be able to produce and direct," she maintains. "The technical part of it should be left to people with more expertise. My students' expertise is the law, and what I really want them to focus on is finding a way to take a legal message and creatively translate it into a visual and audio product."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.