The Penn Program on Documentaries and the Law, directed by Professor Regina Austin L’73, combines the study and production of documentary videos with legal education at Penn Law. The Program exposes students to the use and analysis of law-genre documentaries and how they are used within the legal academy, while they learn about legal issues that are involved in making documentaries and explore the uses of nonfiction film as a tool of legal advocacy.
Recent student videos have included a complex and balanced account of violence against Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School and the ensuing civil rights case brought by the U.S. Department of Justice against the Philadelphia School District; a look into the legal and social implications of gambling in the black community; an exploration of the “Ban the Box” ordinance in Philadelphia that bars employers from inquiring about the criminal histories or doing background checks of job applicants until after the initial interview; and a documentary about the impact of incarceration on motherhood and the challenges pregnant woman face while confined in jails and prisons.
Professor Austin recently spoke with the Penn Law’s Office of Communications to discuss the uniqueness of the Penn Program on Documentaries and the Law.
The Program is devoted to the study of documentaries, as well as the study of the production of documentaries as they relate to legal practice. We train students to do visual legal advocacy, which is to say advocacy on behalf of real clients who have cases and causes that involve the advancement of social justice.
Other schools do have programs involving documentaries and law - Stanford and Yale each have extracurricular activities that involve the production of documentaries - our program is unique in that it is a course. The students are actually engaged in advocacy on behalf of real clients and real causes.
The Program works closely with a number of public interest organizations that see the benefit in having student produced videos made on behalf of their clients. We’ve done a number of projects with Community Legal Services, for example. We’ve done several projects with HIAS, we’ve done a number of projects with people from the [Philadelphia Public] Defender’s office. We’re pretty tied into the public service/public interest community, here in Philadelphia. It’s a wonderful community to work with and we get much from them in the way of assistance with our projects - and the students really enjoy working with the lawyers from these organizations.
This transcript was edited for length.