Q&A with filmmaker Dawn Porter of “Gideon’s Army”

Q&A with filmmaker Dawn Porter of “Gideon’s Army”

“Gideon’s Army,” a film by Dawn Porter which portrays the lives of three young public defenders working in the south, opens this year’s Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham on April 4, 2013, at 7:30 p.m.

GIDEON’S ARMY: Dawn Porter  Photo Credit: Dawn Porter/ courtesy HBO
GIDEON’S ARMY: Dawn Porter
Photo Credit: Dawn Porter/ courtesy HBO

Though unplanned by Porter and her media people, the film’s showing here roughly coincides with the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which established a right to counsel for anyone unable to pay for one. It also coincides with last week’s death of former The New York Times reporter and writer, Anthony Lewis, who in 1964 chronicled the case in the book “Gideon’s Trumpet”—a law school classic that has never gone out of print.

In “Gideon’s Army,” Porter captures the lives of the public defenders—at work and at home—as they face staggering caseloads and confront a system seemingly more interested in having the defenders move their cases than in providing their clients with justice.

The defenders, all graduates of the upstart Southern Public Defender Training Center (now “Gideon’s Promise“) (see more about the center here), struggle on a daily basis to defend clients—some just 16-years-old—too poor to post bond and languishing in jails while awaiting the chance to prove their innocence. The pressure on the attorneys to move cases along coupled with their clients’ growing frustration often leads to a guilty plea, despite actual innocence.

These young attorneys also struggle personally, low-paid and saddled with student loan debt and often conflicted over the value of their work and the humanity of their clients.

“Gideon’s Army” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will air this summer on HBO.

We spoke with Dawn Porter last week as she prepared to visit Durham and appear at Full Frame.

N.C. Policy Watch: How did you transition from lawyer to filmmaker?

Porter: I always wanted to be a lawyer, but like a lot of young lawyers I didn’t really know what that meant. And in some ways it was a really good career choice for me—there’s a lot of training, advocacy and writing—and I enjoyed those things. I worked at Baker Hostetler in Washington, D.C., and I had interesting work, but it wasn’t really satisfying my public interest and creative sides. Then I took a job with ABC Television in New York. Over time, I moved to the news division and then to A&E Television, where I spent time learning how documentaries are put together and thought, “I can do this.” At the same time I was getting frustrated with what was being reported on legal stories—many told only the side of the prosecutor.

NCPW: How did you come up with the idea for “Gideon’s Army”?

Porter: I’d been wanting to make my own film. A friend and former colleague from Baker Hostetler had moved over to the Ford Foundation, so I went to pitch her a documentary—a historical piece. She said, “Well, we don’t really do that type of work but if you’re interested in the work of some of our grantees, some of them are doing really interesting legal stories.” So she introduced me to Jonathan Rapping, who invited me to his Southern Public Defender Training Center (now called Gideon’s Promise). As soon as I got there I realized this was a great story—a bunch of young people who were excited about lawyering for all the right reasons.

NCPW: What message did you want the film to convey?

Porter: I wanted to do a film aimed at people like me, who are interested but don’t really know what’s going on in the criminal justice system. They’re not working in the system and they don’t have anyone who’s in prison. I wanted to show that from the perspective of these young people who are doing it everyday. I went down there the first time and got some footage of the program. With that I got the first Ford grant, so I went another two times to Rap’s program. In between that I started following around the young defenders we’d selected for the film. They would call me whenever something interesting happened, and whenever my crew was free and we had enough money we would get down there. There were some things that we really wanted to film, so we tried to plan, but it’s very difficult to do a movie based on the court system because trials get continued so often. We were lucky to get the court footage we got.

NCPW: How were you able to do that—to film in the courts?

Porter: I’m an attorney, and I checked the court rules. In Georgia I could fax a request, which I did, but then I had to appear in court. Much to my surprise when I got down there the judge asked to hear my argument—which I hadn’t expected. I told him we were making this documentary about public defenders and stressed how important it was to show what their actual work involved. The prosecutor objected, saying that filming would be distracting. But the judge, Judge Deal, said it was important to have full and fair access and to show people what was happening in courts, and so he let us in. We had restrictions—we could not film the jurors, for example, and if there was a police officer who was undercover, we couldn’t film him. Over time they got comfortable with us being in the courtroom, and gave us more access. I’m just really grateful to Judge Deal and the other judges in the film. I think they also really admired these public defenders, and knew they were doing good work, so they were more inclined to allow us to film.

NCPW: What about the public defenders’ experiences inspired you to make this film?

Porter: I really could not believe how many people plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. I still find that shocking and appalling. And it’s not like you just sign a form. You have to stand up in open court and look at the judge while they read the charges against you. So imagine hearing those charges and saying, “yes I did it,” knowing you didn’t, and knowing that there’s prison time coming. The public defenders are so young, and they’re seeing this so often that they’re not shocked by that.

People should know this. I don’t think that that’s what most people think should happen. If you’ve broken the laws of our society, there should be some kind of consequence, and it should be a fair consequence. You can differ on what a fair consequence is, but the basic idea that you are punished for what you actually did is something that most people think is happening, and it’s not. That really motivated me.

And the other thing was how many young people, 16- and 17-year-olds, are being tried as adults and facing really draconian punishments—either going to prison, or pleading to something and not serving a lot of prison time but with collateral consequences that are just appalling. I didn’t know that in many places you can no longer vote, no longer live in public housing, no longer are eligible for federal student aid. All the things that would help people out of poverty are immediately taken away, and you are less than a citizen. To have that happen to somebody who is 17 years old—it still keeps me up at night.

NCPW: What did you learn in court from watching these public defenders do their work?

Porter: I was just impressed with their fine lawyering and that they could do so much with so little, and not be deterred by that. When I was in a firm, I worked on four or five matters at a time, and I thought that was too much. So to watch somebody juggle over a hundred cases at a time—I just couldn’t believe that they would think that that was okay to do.

And also to see what a graceful empathy they have, without being naïve. They don’t think their clients are all innocent, and they’re not romanticizing what’s happening; they’re understanding in a very mature way that they have a job to do and that our constitution literally depends on it.

To me that’s patriotism. We’re supposed to defend the weakest among us, and that’s what they’re doing.

They’re so talented; they could probably make a lot of money doing something else. And none of them are wealthy. These are poor kids who went to law school—you would think that they’d want to make a lot of money, but instead they’re helping people. And I just find that so moving.

They represent that spirit of the civil rights movement. And that was a huge motivating force for me, because I do think there is a sense among progressives that we don’t have that spirit any longer. And that’s a fallacy.

NCPW: Did you get to meet any of the families of the young people who were the defendants featured in the film?

Porter: Yes, and that was both one of the hardest and most rewarding things. Demontes Wright—I met his mother. She helped humanize these young defendants, because everyone’s got a mother. “It’s an unexplainable feeling when somebody comes into your home and takes away your child,” she said in the film, describing when the police came for him. And I’m a mother. I would die if someone did that. So when you think about what’s at stake—it was just so important to get the perspective of someone who has the most at stake.

NCPW: What do you hope to strike in people when they see this film?

Porter: We all have preconceived notions about what public defenders do, and I hope that by spending this hour and a half with these young people they would begin to reexamine their thoughts. I hope whenever they read a criminal justice story they’ll think, “let me really understand what this means.” And that they’ll actually push back on some of the assumptions and really start to question what kind of system we have and should have. I have heard from people across a range of political beliefs who all agree that the system should be fair.

NCPW: Have you had any notable reactions to the film?

Porter: Yes. I remember at Sundance after the premier, a young man stood up and said, “thank you for making this film and telling this story, I’m a public defender.” There were about 400 people there and they all stood up and cheered for him and he goes, “that never happens.” Then his voice cracked and he said, “I want to show this to my parents, because I’ve never been able to explain to them why I do what I do.”

NCPW: What’s your next project?

Porter: I’m just about three weeks away from finishing another film, one about the civil rights movement. During that time the state of Mississippi established a domestic spy agency, and their ‘secret weapons’ were black spies. It was one of the largest domestic spy operations ever in the history of America—all to stop the civil rights movement. People don’t really know about it. It will air on PBS and is called “Spies in Mississippi.”