During the afternoon of April 23, a panel titled "Law and Docs" held a discussion in the University of Massachusetts Boston ballroom as part of the International Film Festival Boston. Discussion centered on documentary film engagement with social justice issues.
UMass Boston Professor Chico Colvard organized and moderated the event. Regina Austin, director at the University of Pennsylvania program on documentaries and law; Kate Nace Day, professor of law emerita at Suffolk University Law School; and HBO documentary producers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner sat on the panel. All are filmmakers.
The event format consisted of two rounds of discussion. In between, clips were shown of films made by the panel speakers, and later the event closed with audience questions. Topics were at times higher-education related, but also ranged between activist film-making, journalistic integrity, shifting technology, and difficulties associated with securing funding.
“Documentary presented itself to me early on as a way to humanize the large classroom lecture courses,” said Professor Day, who in 2012 made "A Civil Remedy," about sex trafficking in Boston. A teacher of law for 30 years, she grew frustrated with law education's reliance on case studies.
“It exalted text, and dehumanized and demarginalized the people,” said Day, who is concerned with educating women, people of color, and LGBT students.
Professor Austin formed the Program on Documentaries and Law after recognizing student multimedia talent at UPenn. She said developing technology, such as cheap HD DSLR cameras and even cellphones, has led to documentary production being accessible.
“The availability of social media makes a big difference, in terms of mobilizing public interest,” she said, but added that despite the advantages technology might provide, keeping up with its development is a challenge.
Davis said many audiences are used to the high production values achieved through special lenses, and the funding required is something filmmakers struggle with.
Davis and Heilbroner are married and have produced documentaries for HBO, the History Channel, A&E, and others. Last year’s HBO documentary, “Newburgh Sting,” received a Peabody Award for distinguished public service. The documentary investigates a 2009 domestic terrorist incident in the Bronx, NY, and evidence of FBI entrapment.
“[Our film exposes] the FBI for lying to the public and Congress, creating the illusion of a terrorist threat to keep their budget high, which had the negative effect of spreading Islamophobia,” said Heilbroner.
The conversation then moved towards the tension between journalistic integrity and network studio pressures.
“There are pluses and minuses to working with [studios like HBO],” said Heilbroner. He also said the capacity cellphone videos have to go viral and stimulate social forces, as seen with the footage of Eric Garner’s murder by NYPD police, is “a very exciting frontier.”