Penn Program onDocumentaries & the Law

Penn Law

Mission Statement

Documentary films increasingly influence what people know and think about law. Consider the impact of such law-genre films as “Capturing the Friedmans,” “Super Size Me,” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” More recently, documentaries have taken on such complex hot-button law-related topics as environmentalism (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Cove,” “Gasland”), the financial crisis (“Inside Job”) and the fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Restrepo,” “Hell and Back Again,” “The Invisible War”). Lawyers should be knowledgeable participants in the cultural and political debates such films provoke about the significance of law to the maintenance of a just and democratic society.

At the same time, the law affects the stories professional filmmakers tell. Apart from contract law, no documentary filmmaker today can ignore copyright, defamation, invasion of privacy, or informed consent. As a result, lawyers who understand both the law and the creative process play an integral part in documentary film production.

In truth, more and more lawyers are assuming the role of videomakers themselves through such devices as video settlement brochures, multimedia closing arguments, sentencing mitigation videos, and visual petitions to administrative bodies. Some clients, frequently with the technical assistance of lawyers, are taking up video cameras in order to tell to their own stories directly to the public and key governmental officials. This is especially true in the area of international human rights. To keep pace with the proliferation of opportunities to mount visual legal arguments that relatively affordable, accessible, and reliable digital technology has generated, law schools must begin to train students in visual legal advocacy.