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Docs & the Law Blog


Defender Association

Visual Advocacy for Advocates: How Philadelphia’s Defender Association Used Social Media to Increase Funding for Its Workers

The staff members of the Defender Association at every level are essential to the fair and efficient operation of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system and deserve pay parity with other City workers. But how do they show that?

U.D.C. Room Door

A Confederate Flag in the Jury Room Leads to a New Trial: “Talking Images” and the Visual Turn in Law

Does the image of a Confederate flag framed and hung on the wall of a jury room provide “extraneous prejudicial information” on which to set aside a verdict? Yes!


A visual call to justice on a lamp post in West Philadelphia??

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”: A Minority Bank, Racial Bias, and the Democratization of Credit

Steve James presents the story of the Sungs and their struggle to save their family-run Chinatown bank from a misguided prosecution based on cultural incompetence.

Michael Romano, Esq. from The Return

“The Return”: Resentencing, Reentry Support, and a Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Evolving Roles

“The Return” reveals why a lawyer, deeply involved in the resentencing of Three Strikers as a way of reducing mass incarceration, placed reentry services near the top of his concerns.

From Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Only “Good Victims” Need Apply: “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” and Poor Black Women in Crack Culture

The story of a serial killer who took advantage of crack culture to prey on black women can tell us much about what is wrong with the notion of “the good victim.”

Defendant uses ‘Cops’ video footage to suppress handgun evidence

Documentary television footage contradicts a police officer’s testimony about a stop-and-frisk, and leads a federal district court to find that the officer violated the defendant’s constitutional rights.

“Last Day of Freedom”: Bill Babbitt’s Struggle with the Stigma of Being the Brother of a Murderer

How does a brother cope with the shame, guilt, regret, and anger of being the relative of a mentally-ill ex-Marine who committed a murder, but should not have been executed for it?

The government’s harassing me because I’m a documentary filmmaker. Should I FOIA them?

Weighing the pros and cons of filmmakers asking federal agencies for records about themselves, under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act.

Prison Portraits: Photographic Self-Representation in an Image Desert

As the Docs Program undertakes visual work on behalf of lifers incarcerated for decades because they are ineligible for parole, we confront a ban on photographing and filming in prisons.  Prison Portraits may be useful in providing not only a way to deal with the ban, but also an argument why it is wrong.

A still from Gabriel London's documentary, The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest.

Arranging a Doc Screening Leads to Inquiry of Federal Judge’s Impartiality

After federal judge Mark Wolf moderated a panel discussion about The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest, he was investigated by the FBI, the IRS, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Massachusetts State Police to determine if he had compromised his ability to preside over a death penalty case.

Image from Out in the Night

Not Girls in a Gang nor a Gang of Girls: A Law-Focused Review of “Out in the Night”

The law uses the term “gang” too loosely.  “Out in the Night” explores what happened when the term was applied to four young-adult black working-class lesbians from Newark.


“A Civil Remedy” Backstory: How Law Professor Kate Nace Day Came to Make a Documentary Short about Domestic Sex Trafficking

After analyzing numerous documentaries about sex trafficking, Law Professor Emerita Kate Nace Day decided to make one that focuses on a vision of civil justice for survivors.

62nd and Osage

Collective Trauma, Transitional Justice and Two Documentaries about Philadelphia’s Confrontation with MOVE

As “Let the Fire Burn” (2013) and “The Bombing of Osage Avenue” (1987) show in very different ways, May 13, 1985 was a traumatic day in the history of police/citizen relations in Philadelphia.  Its legacy is reflected in contemporary controversies over race relations in America.

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Press freedom group expands access to free legal services for documentarians

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is launching a new campaign to reach out to documentary filmmakers.

“The Look of Silence”: Vicarious Fear, Transitional Justice, and Documentary Practice

Like “The Act of Killing,”  Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence” examines the 1965 Indonesian genocide; this time the focus is Adi Rukun, the brother of a victim, who pursues his own mission of truth and reconciliation.

Forget Flattery: The Attributes of a Good, Effective Sentencing Video

A sentencing video should be more than a flattering portrait of a defendant; it should tell the story of what the defendant has done to deserve a lighter sentence and why he or she is unlikely to reoffend.

A Feature-Length Black Feminist Autobiographical True-Crime Amateur Documentary: “Justice for Her”

“Justice for Her” is a compelling, insightful documentary directed and produced by a black mother about her struggle to secure the acquittal of her daughter who was charged with capital murder during the “War on Drugs.”

Portraying Young Black Men “with a Background”: An Authenticating Audience Reviews “Evolution of a Criminal”

“Evolution of a Criminal,” with its complex portrait of the filmmaker, offers an good starting point for an audience with lived experience to consider how the media should portray young black men with criminal records.

“Sticker Shock” in the Academic Market: A Plea for More Creative Distribution and Pricing Options for Documentary Sales to Colleges and Universities

What can be done to increase college-level teachers’ and researchers’ access to documentaries in the non-theatrical, non-home video academic market while still supporting independent film production?

Blurring the Boundary Between the Doc World and the Law: A Conversation with Chico Colvard

Chico Colvard–documentary filmmaker, film series curator, and lapsed lawyer–explains how he puts skills acquired during his legal training to work in the documentary world.

Confronting the Digital Reality: Producing Visual Advocacy and Scholarship (PVAS) in Law Schools

Visual legal advocacy and scholarship (PVAS) are being taught and produced in law schools around the country today and the PVAS Working Group intends to support their expansion.

The Lived Experience of an Oxymoron: Harry Reicher’s Visual Approach to Law & the Holocaust

The late Harry Reicher, Adjunct Professor at Penn Law, made extensive use of visual material in teaching Holocaust Studies in the Law.  His talk at the Shoah Foundation explains how and why.


The PA Department of Corrections’ nearly complete ban on recording in its facilities by lawyers and the media needs to be reexamined in light of advances in the use of digital audiovisual technology and visual legal advocacy.

When HBO or POV Comes Calling: Defense Counsel’s Role in an Observational Documentary of a Criminal Proceeding

Supreme Court precedent required that a juvenile offender serving four consecutive terms of LWOP be resentenced.  Learn about the role his defense lawyers played in representing him as the subject of the observational documentary “15 to Life.”

Just Public! by Regina Austin

To Ask or Not to Ask? The Law, Ethics, & Etiquette of Capturing the Public for “DIY Stock”

What guidance should law students be given about capturing candid images of the public, in public and without the subjects’ consent, for a “DIY Stock” gallery?

Storytellers Needed! Collaborations and the Promise of i-Docs

When social justice collaborations and storytellers are in short supply, visual legal advocates should pursue the promise of i-Docs (Interactive Documentaries) to encourage participation and activism for change.

Chris Jesu

VLA Production Sine Qua Non: A DIY “Stock” Image Gallery with a “Street Vibe”

Having a DIY gallery of stock images of your own making is a sine qua non to teaching and practicing visual legal advocacy.  Capturing stills and video footage with the characteristics of street photography in mind will really enrich the collection.

Teaching Advocacy Video Production in Law School: Getting by with a Lot of Help from My Collaborators

This is the first in a series of “how-to” posts on structuring a course that involves law students, supported by a host of collaborators, in producing and directing short social justice advocacy documentaries.

The Memphis 13 (Courtesy of Daniel Kiel)

The First-Graders Who Were “The Memphis 13”: A Different Visual Take on Brown v. Board

“The Memphis 13” is not only a powerful and thought-provoking short documentary; it also illustrates the potential contributions of visual legal scholarship.   

Framed by Premasagar Rose on Flickr

Showing Where We Come From – A Public Defender’s Use of Video in Pretrial Plea Negotiations

In making the case for resources and training in visual legal advocacy, a public defender describes how a video she shot in a client’s home with his mother was effective in reducing his sentence.   

“Nowhere to Run”: A Student Video on the Impact of Recreational Disparities on City Kids

Sometimes legal research generates a good topic for a student-made visual legal advocacy video.  It did in the case of “Nowhere to Run: Giving Philly’s Urban Youth a Place to Play.”

Affirming Human Connections in Interviews

Conducting interviews for social justice documentaries gives students the opportunity to understand the importance of affirming human connections as they learn how to use cameras, lights, and mikes,

Documenting Social Justice Protests #3: The Supporting Roles of Three Different Kinds of Lawyers

Lawyers play a supporting role in protecting and assisting protesters who interact with digital visual technology. The lawyers may be practicing criminal law, civil liberties, or international human rights.

Documenting Social Justice Protests #2: “In Struggle” with Signs, Symbols, Spectacle, and Respect for Social Connections

Not only should visual artist activists produce work that is authentic and creative, they should also pay due regard to the importance of social connections to movements for social change.

Due East: The Chinese Internet Audience

The Chinese audience for Internet video programming is much like that for television documentaries.  Few dreamers here.

Attorney Steve Wise with Teco, a bonobo at the Iowa Great Ape Trust. (Photo courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films.)

Filmmakers Discuss Challenges of Documenting Landmark Animal Rights Case

Renowned documentary duo, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, discuss the challenges of and hopes for their latest documentary project, which follows a lawyer fighting for “personhood” rights for chimpanzees.

Documenting Social Justice Protests #1: The Visual Impact of “Creative Cultural Resistance”

Video of the 2014 VLA Roundtable “Preparing to Protest” shows how “creative cultural resistance” can increase the visual impact of direct action social justice protests.

Sentencing Videos: Visual Legal Advocacy for Criminal Defendants

Sentencing videos are short nonfiction advocacy pieces that can help criminal defendants obtain better sentences by illustrating with images, sound, and text their capacity as a human beings to suffer, err, grow and change.

Aftermath of a 1970 Raid on a Black Panther Headquarters in Philadelphia

Eyes Still on the Prize: Stanley Nelson’s Authenticating Audience

How does a documentary filmmaker whose focus is the history of black people’s struggle for equality satisfy the conflicting demands of an audience that lived the history and an audience that needs to learn it? 

Promotional images for The Art of the Steal -- the Hollywood film (top) and the documentary.

The Art of the Movie-Title Steal

Two new Hollywood films have the same titles as recent documentary films. How is that legal?

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger (right) films plaintiffs' attorney Steven Donziger in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

What ‘Chevron Corp. v. Donziger’ Continues To Get Wrong about Documentary Filmmaking

The latest opinion from the Southern District of New York betrays misapprehensions about documentary filmmaking, and, in the process, renders documentary outtakes more vulnerable to subpoena than they should be.

Seun Summers in American Promise

Documenting the ‘Black Male Achievement Gap’ and Building a Campaign for Change

American Promise documents the education of two middle-class African-American boys in New York City from kindergarten through high school.  With the documentary as a springboard, the filmmakers are spearheading a larger social justice campaign to support better educational opportunities for African-American males.

Thom Powers at DOC NYC in 2013

Do Documentary Filmmakers Need a Legal Defense Fund?

Documentary guru Thom Powers thinks that organizations that support doc filmmakers need to create a legal defense fund to help filmmakers pay legal bills.

Courtesy of SenArt Films/Kids for Cash Movie

“Kids for Cash”: Aided and Abetted by “Zero Tolerance” and the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”

The documentary “Kids for Cash” is as much about the limits of zero tolerance policies and the harms of the school-to-prison pipeline as it is about judicial greed and corruption.  Who knew?

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Getting Appearance Releases Signed: A Cautionary Tale

A lawsuit reveals details about documentarian Errol Morris’s struggle to get consent forms signed by Joyce McKinney, the subject of the film Tabloid.

Give Up Tomorrow was one of the 2013 finalists for the PUMA Impact Award.

Beyond the Box Office: Measuring the Impact of Documentary Films

The PUMA Impact Awards have created an archive of case studies detailing how filmmakers and advocates use film and video to make a difference in the world.

David Kato, left, in Call me Kuchu.

How to Gain the Trust of Your Documentary Subjects

Call Me Kuchu co-director Malika Zouhali-Worrall talks about gaining trust of documentary film subjects.

Professor Austin at Bryn Mawr College

Thoughts on “The Loving Story”

A closer look reveals that there is more to “The Loving Story” than meets the eye.

Class Warfare in Philadelphia

Class Warfare in Philadelphia

This 8-episode series looks at economic inequality in Philadelphia and the political activism of engaged Philadelphians who are targeting the social and material disparities burdening the City’s poor and working people.