Sundance 2013: Dawn Porter talks Gideon’s Army

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Sundance 2013: Dawn Porter talks Gideon’s Army
By Wilson Morales

February 1, 2013

We’ve seen our share of ‘Law & Order’ and what goes on in a public courtroom, but one never examines the life a lawyer who puts in an enormous amount of passion to defend a client when there’s little pay, and their own life suffers a bit. Especially when the lawyer is a public defender.

At the recent Sundance Film Festival, Dawn Porter’s film, ‘Gideon’s Army,’ follows Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, three young public defenders who are part of a small group of idealistic lawyers in the Deep South challenging the assumptions that drive a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point. Backed by mentor Jonathan “Rap” Rapping, a charismatic leader who heads the Southern Public Defender Training Center, they struggle against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads so common that even the most committed often give up in their first year.

Not only is she an emerging filmmaker, but Porter is also an attorney who worked as a civil litigator. Her hard work enabled her to receive a grant from the Ford Foundation, The Tribeca Film Institute, The Sundance Film Institute and Chicken & Egg Pictures to help finance this documentary. Gideon’s Army won the Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award from the Tribeca Film Institute in 2011.

Prior to its premiere at the festival, HBO documentary films has already come on board and will showcase the film on its network and while at the festival, the film’s editor Matthew Hamachek won the U.S. Documentary Editing Award. had a chance to speak with Porter examining this subject and what she learned most from the people she worked with.

What attracted you to the project?

Dawn Porter: I had met with Jonathan Rapping, who is the Founder and CEO of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, and he had invited me to come to Alabama to see his training program. I hadn’t spent much time in the South and so I went. I was blown away with what he was doing with young lawyers. Training them and becoming a community, they were just great. It was so inspiring to me, that I thought it would be great for other people to see what they were doing.

How many people did you initially wanted to focus on and did you have an endgame from the start?

DP: I didn’t have an endgame. Originally I started following five of them, and I had asked people who were there to volunteer, to do one-one-ones. I was filming the training sessions, and their interactions with the professors, and then I asked if anyone wanted to do interviews. Travis William said yes, Brandy Alexander said yes, and so did June Hardwick. There was this wonderful woman named Heather and a couple of other lawyers also had agreed. From there, I had picked five of them to go and follow. I was originally trying to include all of them, but then it became too many people and I had to cut some of them out, and I ended up focusing on June, Brandy, and Travis.

While you were filming the doc, did you go back home at all or did you stay down South throughout the whole process?

DP: I was going back and forth. I have two kids, who, when I first started, were five and seven. Now they are eleven and nine. I would go down for a week at a time. I would go every six months to the training session and see the same group, and in between the training sessions, I would set up trips to follow them in their homes. As soon as I got more money, I would go back.

How many hours of footage did you have and how long was the editing process?

DP: It took a little over a year to edit and we have more than 500 hours of footage. We were rolling and at some point I added a second camera. We have a ton of material and I had started out following five people and filming trials. You never know when they will be a good moment. So, it’s a lot of footage.

As a filmmaker, what was the most challenging aspect? Was it going back and forth, getting funding, not knowing when it will end, or the editing process?

DP: It was a little bit of all of those. One particular trouble was that we are in different states and I was trying to film court proceedings, and court proceedings get delayed all the time. Travis would call me up and say, “I have a great trial. It’s definitely going to go,” and I would say, “Great.” I would call and reserve the camera guys and book a ticket and then he would call and say, “It’s delayed.” That’s always a big challenge. Getting access to the court is a challenge. I have to file a motion every time to get court access. After a while, Travis’ trial and Brandy’s courtroom got use to us. Once we got access a couple of times, they were very generous with letting us come down. I also think they understood that we were coming from another state. At first, it was very challenging. I had this great grant from the Ford Foundation, so I had the money to film for a while, but filming is very expensive. It’s more than you think. You have to keep raising money. You have to show people the progress so that you can get more funding. This is not a 9 to 5 job.

With so many documentaries done yearly, how did you get HBO to be part of it and showcase it on their network?

DP: I met them after I did the Tribeca All-Access program, which is a great mentorship program. It’s people you chase around for a year, and Tribeca brings them to you all in one room. You see them all in two days. You have individual meetings. A lot of companies are there. HBO was interested and we had sent them some footage. They came to a pitch, which was hosted by the Ford Foundation, and after that, they were in. They had seen 20 minutes of edited footage. They were great.

What did you learn through this process as an attorney?

DP: I have so much admiration for these young lawyers. I was a corporate lawyer and no one let near a real client for years. These folks come out of the box and they are doing trials in a matter of weeks. I had learned so much about bravery and persistence from them. I also learned how messed up the criminal system is compared to what I was used to in the civil system. In the criminal system, you are dealing with people’s lives. That’s a different type of unfairness, and much more immediate and real. I really learned what was actually happening and right under our noses. It was invisible to me before and working with these lawyers made it so real.

How was your experience at Sundance? Congrats on your editor winning an award.

DP: I’m really proud of Matthew Hamachek for winning Best Editing. That’s really like winning best story for tight filmmaking. We worked so hard on the edit and putting in the stories of these three people and their mentors. Sundance was surreal especially once you get there. I didn’t imaging what it would be like watching the film with an audience, and just to see their reaction with people crying after the screening and standing ovations for the young lawyers. These young lawyers don’t get any praise and they had a bunch of strangers on their feet cheering for them. That was incredible. In the Q & A, when a young man stood up and said that he was a public defender, the audience went bananas and cheered for him. He got choked up and said that this film was his story as well. For all the work, trauma, and worry about getting it done, it was worth it.

What’s next for you? Is there a date when HBO will air ‘Gideon’s Army?’

DP: HBO is going to show the film in the summer and we have applied to a bunch of other festivals. I’m actually working on a featured doc for PBS about spies during the Civil Rights Movement. This is what I want to do, both day and night.

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