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Penn Law students use film to tell their clients’ stories to a mass audience

October 07, 2008

PHILADELPHIA (Oct. 7, 2008) - Michael Wong is a 26-year-old law school student turned filmmaker, whose newest film debuts in less than two weeks.  Shmul Kaplan is an 80-year-old disabled survivor of Nazi oppression whose complicated journey through the U.S. immigration system is told in the film.

“The hours and hours that I spent concentrating on Mr. Kaplan’s face, both in shooting and editing the film, helped remind me to appreciate the beauty of the human face,” Wong says. “Somewhere along the line, I had stopped observing peoples’ faces when they talked. But you can learn so much about people just by watching them; where they are coming from, their mood, what they want.”

What is a law school student doing making a film about an octogenarian trying to obtain citizenship? 

“This will make me a better lawyer,” he says.

Wong’s documentary contributes to the growing body of law-genre documentaries made by lawyers and law students. Students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School first analyze feature-length films that focus on lawyers, the law or social policy, and then produce short advocacy videos that explain complex legal matters to a general lay audience or that allow clients the opportunity to situate their legal problems within the context of their lives.

“The Documentaries and the Law course teaches students the connection between narrative in film and legal persuasion, while the Visual Legal Advocacy seminar gives them the opportunity to make short films on behalf of real clients or organizations,” explains Regina Austin, professor of law and director of the Penn Program on Documentaries and the Law. “Telling stories with pictures and sound in legal proceedings is the wave of the future. Learning the rudiments of video production is a tool that will stand law students in good stead.”

Most of the work the students do is for general public education (like a short video on the life of civil rights lawyer Sadie T.M. Alexander) and for administrative proceedings (like asylum issues or pardon and clemency hearings).

Wong’s short documentary tells Kaplan’s story of surviving the Nazi invasion of the Ukraine and then, at age 70, seeking asylum in the United States from the anti-Semitism he had faced his entire life. He dutifully applied for a Green Card, the first step to becoming a citizen. Delays in the naturalization process, however, caused Kaplan to lose his disability benefits – he was forced to live on $215 per month plus food stamps for three years.  Tens of thousands of other disabled asylum applicants suffered the same fate; Kaplan became the named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit.


That lawsuit has been settled in favor of Kaplan and his fellow elderly and disabled refugees. The CIS will expedite their applications so they may continue to receive their benefits.

Since filming ended, Wong has maintained contact with Kaplan, attending a ceremony where Kaplan received a special citizenship award from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia.

“Lawyers have a unique set of skills that allow them to understand and explain complex issues,” the law student and filmmaker says. “The medium of film helps me present these complex issues in a way that grabs the attention of the normal viewing audience more effectively than other media and breaks down the issues in a way they can understand.”

Wong intends to accept an offer to work in corporate law. He feels his training in legal filmmaking has already improved his lawyering skills.

The program is also creating a series of videos about the pardon process and has created a library of clemency films. Currently, students are editing a video that tells the story of an incarcerated woman who is under house arrest while awaiting a kidney transplant. Because the woman cannot leave the house, telling her story in the video is one of the few ways in which she can perform community service.

Austin sees proselytizing among lawyers about the power of film and video in legal advocacy as part of her mission.

The program continues to seek clients who would benefit from the student work. Their work and DVD distribution is free of charge.

“We have to overcome skepticism about the economics and efficacy of video,” she says.

To that end, the Penn Program on Documentaries and the Law is holding a roundtable, “Building Video Bridges,” on Friday, Oct.17, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Public interest lawyers, entertainment lawyers, law students, law professors, information technology specialists with public-interest organizations and documentary filmmakers will gather at Penn Law’s second Visual Legal Advocacy Roundtable. Law professors, producers and directors will discuss their work and best practices.

The conference will include a premiere of the student-produced short documentary “Shmul Kaplan.”


Anyone wishing to attend the Roundtable should register in advance by e-mailing Anna Gavin, events coordinator at Penn Law School, at The organizers will seek approval for four and one-half hours of Pennsylvania Continuing Legal Education credit to be provided for a nominal fee of $25. Please indicate your intention to seek CLE credit when you communicate with Gavin about your attendance.