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Rough Cut Video Festival: Exploring the Ethical Dimensions of Film

April 15, 2011

By Jenny Chung C’12

Professor Regina Austin, teacher of the visual legal advocacy seminar
Professor Regina Austin, teacher of the visual legal advocacy seminar

An audience of Penn Law students—along with faculty and local community members—convened Tuesday evening to watch a series of short films produced by their classmates at the 2011 Rough Cut Video Festival.

Featuring five half-hour documentaries on such wide-ranging topics as the experiences of incarcerated mothers and the “Ban the Box” movement in Philadelphia, the Festival showcased the early edited—or “rough cut”—versions of each film.

The documentaries presented were both filmed and directed by members of the Visual Legal Advocacy Seminar, taught by Professor Regina Austin L’73. A central component of the Penn Program on Documentaries and the Law, Austin’s seminar integrates law-genre documentaries into the legal academy by enabling students to produce documentary films on issues of social justice.

“These students have gotten as far as they have generally by relying on the written word—tonight we’ll see how they’re able to think in terms of visuals and music,” Austin said by way of introduction, adding that the student filmmakers have proven themselves to be genuine “believers in the potential of visual legal advocacy.”

In spite of the array of refreshments offered and informal atmosphere, Austin cautioned her audience against passive viewing. “Don’t think you’re just here to relax and enjoy the show,” she said. “This isn’t a movie theater; this is a classroom and working session not only for the videomakers, but their audience as well.”

Commending the “bravery” her students demonstrated by their willingness to exhibit their work “to an audience full of lawyers with years of experience and practical wisdom,” Austin urged viewers to focus particular attention on the “ethical dimensions” of the videos, which sought to portray “ordinary people” with firsthand experience concerning the issues under investigation.

Jackpot! The Legal and Social Implications of Gambling in the Black Community

Nathaniel Koonce L'12 and Jerome Jordan L'12, two of the creators of Jackpot! The Legal and Social Implications of Gambling in the Black Community
Nathaniel Koonce L'12 and Jerome Jordan L'12, two of the creators of Jackpot! The Legal and Social Implications of Gambling in the Black Community
Jackpot! The Legal and Social Implications of Gambling in the Black Community, which examined gambling addiction and its effects on the African-American community in Philadelphia, opened with interviews from community leaders, casino patrons and academics.

Offering insight into the sociocultural factors exacerbating the issue, community activist Reverend Jesse Brown asserted that the black community has had a “long history” with gambling. He further theorized that a given community may be more “susceptible” to pathological gambling if “gambling has been part of its normal activity, behavior and the way [members] fellowship.”

In addition to evaluating the potential catalysts of gambling addiction, the documentary also supplied a comprehensive overview of the effects of gambling on the elderly and disabled within the black community—as well as the community at large—noting that every year increasing numbers of individuals representing a broad cross-section of society fall victim to compulsive gambling. 

In an effort to put a human face on gambling addiction, Sandra Adell, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and author of Confessions of a Slot Machine Queen, shared her personal experiences.

Adell said she wrote Confessions, an account of her struggle with compulsive gambling, in order to provide “vulnerable communities [with] a forum to begin to talk about problems with the proliferation of casinos around the country.”

The film also examined the role of the church in addressing gambling addiction, concluding that while churches have historically served as pillars of the black community, they too often send “mixed messages” to the devout by holding raffles or sponsoring trips to casinos after service.

Both activists and legal practitioners interviewed agreed that there exists a need for increased funding to finance more accessible treatment for addicts, and for ordinary citizens to exercise greater influence in deciding whether new casinos are to be introduced to Philadelphia.

According to Nathaniel Koonce L’12, who had worked on the documentary in collaboration with Andrew Pinkston L’12, Wendell Holland L’11 and Jerome Jordan L’12, Jackpot! had from the outset been intended for distribution across and within the broader community. The group plans to release the film via YouTube, public access television, grassroots networks and similar venues in the coming weeks.

We Didn’t Come Here to Fight: The Struggle for a Safe Education

Rebekah Lee L'11, Angela Redai L'11, Jade Palomino L'11, and Jane Zenzi Li L'11, creators of We Didn't Come Here to Fight: The Struggle for a Safe Education
Rebekah Lee L'11, Angela Redai L'11, Jade Palomino L'11, and Jane Zenzi Li L'11, creators of We Didn't Come Here to Fight: The Struggle for a Safe Education
Following a brief question-and-answer session with the producers of Jackpot!, the audience was shown 'We Didn’t Come Here to Fight’: The Struggle for a Safe Education, which documented the recent violence against Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School and the ensuing legal proceedings.

Produced, written, directed and shot by Rebekah Lee, Jane Zenzi Li, Jade Palomino and Angela Redai, all third-year law students, the film wove interviews from South Philadelphia High students, Asian-American activists and community members into a compelling narrative. 

After several Asian students were hospitalized following an outbreak of violence in 2009, others staged an 8-day boycott of the high school en masse to express their disappointment with the deficient security measures on campus and perceived indifference on the part of school administrators.

According to South Philadelphia High senior and student leader Duong Nghe Ly, he and other students concerned with the violence had not been “fighting other students” but the administration and school officials who consistently failed to adequately address the students’ concerns.

The students then brought their complaints before the Department of Justice, alleging that the school district had engaged in discrimination under the 14th Amendment on account of its “deliberate indifference.” The case resulted in a settlement that, according to Asian Americans United board member Helen Gym, not only proposed solutions to the immediate problem but facilitated dialogue on strategies for improving the school overall.

The documentary also endeavored to trace the ethnic tension at South Philadelphia High to its root causes, suggesting that both the administration’s subpar student orientation efforts and the cultural and language barriers alienating immigrant students from their peers may be to blame.

The system of school choice in Philadelphia, under which private, charter and magnet schools do not offer the full range of ESL services, also leaves immigrant students with little choice but to enroll in the neighborhood high school—however hostile.

According to Li, she and her co-directors were inspired to address this issue due to their work with students in the Philadelphia school system. “We knew people involved in the incidents, and it struck a chord with us,” she said.

Palomino added that because campus violence continues to be a national media issue, she hopes the documentary will “effect some change.”

The Rough Cut Video Festival included a total of six films:
Boxed Out: Criminal Records and the “Ban the Box” Movement in Philadelphia (Running time 0:30)
Produced, Directed, Shot, and Edited by Katherine Andrews L'11, Abel Rodriguez L'11, and Megan Rok L'11
Edited and Animated with the help of JJ Rok

Don’t Steal My House: Deed Fraud in Philadelphia (Running time 0:30)
Produced, Directed, and Edited by Kevin Bale L'11, Pauline Law L'12, and Johnathan Lindsey L'11
Shot by Kevin Bale L'11, Pauline Law L'12, Johnathan Lindsey L'11 and Kevin Stirling
Technical Support by Neal Swisher and Kevin Stirling
Additional Cinematography and Photography by Adam Brody and Erb Larson

Jackpot! The Legal and Social Implications of Gambling in the Black Community (Running time 0:30)
Produced, Directed, and Shot by Nathaniel Koonce L'12, Andrew Pinkston L'12, Wendell Holland L'11, and Jerome Jordan L'12
Edited by Neal Swisher
Scored by Jerome Jordan

Mothers in Prison (Running time 0:25)
Produced by Sabrina Haugebrook (Penn Criminology M.S., 2011), Yoav Stein (Penn Law Visiting Exchange Student from Tel Aviv Law School), and Steve Fecarotta (Drexel Law, 2009; Drexel Television Management M.S., 2011) 
Directed and Shot by Steve Fecarotta, Sabrina Haugebrook, and Yoav Stein
Edited by Sabrina Haugebrook and Steve Fecarotta
Graphics by John Paul MacDuffie Woodburn

"We Didn't Come Here to Fight”: The Struggle for a Safe Education (Running time 0:25)
Produced, Written, Directed, and Shot by Rebekah Lee L'11, Jane Zenzi Li L'11, Jade Palomino L'11, and Angela Redai L'11
Executive Editor:  Irit Reinheimer
Narrated by Pierre Gooding L'11
Additional Narration (December 3rd Violence Montage) by Ryan Crosner L'11, Rebekah Lee L'11, Jane Zenzi Li L'11, Joel Lin L'11, and John Woo L'11

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