Short Films from Harvard Law Students Illuminate Issues of Justice — and Injustice

Posted on June 28, 2021 at 6:02 am

The law can be viewed as a menacing force to intimidate and coerce. But what happens when the law is challenged to right a wrong or create constructive change? Led by Harvard Law School Professor Martha Minow and producer Joseph Tovares, twelve Harvard Law students set out to explore that intersection in LEGAL LENS, premiering Monday, June 28 on WORLD Channel’s LOCAL, USA with additional, exclusive shorts on YouTube. Through five short films featuring captivating profiles and passionate characters, the series examines how laws and regulations can either disrupt lives or lead to positive shifts, depending on how they are interpreted or contested.

“I’ve often thought it may seem strange, but that the closest activity to law, and law practice, is documentary filmmaking, because in a similar, maybe surprising way, we have to deal with the actual reality. This is not fiction. And at the same time, no one would deny there’s a shaping, there’s a choice-making, there’s a set of selection decisions,” Minow says.

The similarities between studying law and creating documentary films may not be obvious, like Minow suggests, but consider the larger themes of both: Lawyers craft stories to win their cases; documentarians lead viewers through a focused narrative to bring attention to an issue.

But more than the industries’ parallels, it’s about the reach film has when compared to law, says Kenyan LL.M. student Zamzam Mohammed, who worked to shine a light on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. She believes the medium can raise a new kind of awareness: “You can have a case in court, and only very few people would actually be able to understand what’s going on. But then when you have a film, anybody can watch a film on the subway, you can watch it when you’re cooking dinner. And so I think it’s something that helps people understand in a way that is clear for them,” she said.

David Benger, one of a team of students who focused on prison reform, found that documentary fit in seamlessly with his mission as a lawyer: to create broader awareness that, in turn, facilitates change. “I think we, as lawyers, try to convince people, not only that we’re right, but that people should care about what we have to say. And I think filmmaking is an extremely useful tool for helping people invest emotionally in real problems that other people have,” he said.

Starting the conversation, even if it seems like no substantial progress is being made, is half the battle, says LL.M. student Adam Posluns.

“Litigation doesn’t always have to be about big victories in court…Sometimes that change can happen just by initiating lawsuits, just by starting the litigation,” he said. “Because even if you don’t win, and sometimes you won’t win for various reasons…it can get other people to see that they can also litigate these issues. They don’t have to wait for their governments to come along.”

Law, these students agree, may seem straightforward on paper, but when film becomes an element, seeing the human stories behind those laws creates an expanded consciousness and adds a new angle to the purpose of law, offering insight that may otherwise be lost.

“Narrative storytelling, especially documentary storytelling, can help lawyers do their job better and remember that this is about people. I think the thing I hate the most is when people say, ‘Oh, let’s not focus on the facts. Let’s just focus on the law,’” said Elisabeth Mabus, J.D student from Jackson, Mississippi. “The facts are the people. And the facts are the people that the law impacts. And we cannot lose sight of that.”

The umbrella of human rights is what led Minow’s class to their underlying theme: home, and how the law can have such an effect on a person’s sense of it.

“Sometimes we forget the stories behind these legal cases, or don’t pay as much attention to stories behind these legal cases we read. We go straight to the legal issue. We go to the legal arguments, principles, but it’s a gentle reminder that behind every case there’s a human story…win or lose, there’s always that human story,” Daren Zhang, California J.D student, said.

Within these five films, the stories ultimately lead back to what makes a home, and how the idea of home, that basic and fundamental right, is challenged when human rights are threatened. According to Posluns, that was the driving force behind these stories. “I think people felt that human rights were being put on the back burner, that they’re being disregarded rather than championed…That human rights had become more bargaining chips in transactions rather than something to be fought for and to be championed around the world,” he said.

By looking at issues like climate change, immigration and gentrification through a legal lens, these future lawyers began to see their profession differently. By embarking on a mission to represent their characters (Lisa Newman, a working mother; Doris Landaverde, an 18-year Temporary Protected Status holder; Damali Vidot, an unassuming but confident community leader) justly and effectively, opinions on what practicing law means began to evolve.

Kevin Patumwat, a J.D student from Bangkok, Thailand, shared how the project underscored the role of ineffective lawyering: “I think this project really drove home the importance of how lawyers need to be able to use the knowledge, use the resources they have, and really more effectively advocate for the people who they’re advocating for.”

“Ultimately when you care about an issue and you want to tell a story about an issue, there’s a great deal of value in having many different tools in your toolbox for how to tell that story and how to make people care and that this may not be a part of their direct lived experience, but it’s something they should care about,” Benger echoed.

By shifting the gaze of litigation onto honest, human stories, LEGAL LENS offers a glimpse into how there is still room for change in the way law is interpreted and enacted.

“In a lot of our national conversations, I think we focus so much on the things that divide us. We forget often how much we have in common. And we forget to see all the things that unite us,” Boston, Massachusetts J.D student Tianhao He said. “Even though the films in this series all touch on different issue areas with different characters in different parts of life, I think we do see these universal themes. These universal themes of yearning for belonging, of the struggle and also the joys of building home in America.”

Related Tags:

 

Courtroom Documentary

Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Posted on June 24, 2021 at 8:00 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief drug material, some disturbing images, and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug material
Violence/ Scariness: Archival images of violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Hulu
It felt like the United States had never been more angry and divided. Protests over the treatment of Black Americans erupted into riots. Not last year; this was just over half a century ago, in 1969. The same summer that an outdoor music festival near Woodstock New York became a cultural icon in part because everything went wrong and in part because it was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, there was a festival in Harlem of equal star power and impact on the community. But it was all but forgotten because unlike Woodstock, pretty much everything went right, because it was spread out over the whole summer, because the concert footage was hidden away in a basement for five decades, and because the performers and the audience were Black.

And now Questlove, whose expansive knowledge of music is is reflected in his work with The Roots on the Tonight Show and his book Music is History has combined the archival footage with contemporary interviews in directing (as Ahmir-Khalib Thompson) “Summer of Soul,” which deserves to be every bit the cultural touchstone of the other big concert of the year.

There’s even some overlap. Sly and the Family Stone, whose “I Want to Take You Higher” is a highlight of “Woodstock,” is every bit as incendiary in this film as well, though one participant jokes that Sly was so unreliable that you could not be sure he was coming on stage even after his name was announced. The sheer variety is pure joy and every performance is thrilling, from the Edwin Hawkins Singers to Mahalia Jackson to Hugh Masekela and Nina Simone, blues legend B.B. King to supper club legend Abbey Lincoln. David Ruffin of The Temptations shows up as a solo singer. A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder! Gladys Knight and the Pips! The just-breaking-through Fifth Dimension performs in bright yellow shirts with orange fringed vests. They talk about how their pop sound made audiences think they were white and when some discovered that they were not, accused them of being “not Black enough.” Sweetly, they say it meant the world to them to be welcomed by the audience in Harlem.

Questlove/Thompson skillfully blends the archival footage to blend the recollections of those who were there with historical context and contemporary perspective. I would happily watch an entire documentary about the host and promoter, night club singer Tony Lawrence, and learn more about how it all came together. Most moving are the comments about how much it meant to the community, especially the people who were there as performers and audience members. The pure joy that radiates from the venue, those on stage and those who were listening, some grilling chicken, some hanging from the trees to get a better view, is like a jolt of optimism and a powerful reminder of the power of music to bring people together.

Parents should know there is some historical footage with violent images and a drug reference, along with some strong language and smoking.

Family discussion: Which was your favorite performance and why? Could an event like this free concert series happen today?

If you like this, try: “Woodstock,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?” the “1971” series about the music of that transitional moment, and another recently restored concert film from archival footage, “Amazing Grace,” with Aretha Franklin

Related Tags:

 

Documentary movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Musical Race and Diversity

P!nk: All I Know So Far

Posted on May 20, 2021 at 5:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine
Violence/ Scariness: Brief scene of accident
Diversity Issues: Acceptance of diversity a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 21, 2021

Copyright 2021 Amazon Studios
As I watched “P!nk: All I Know So Far,” I thought tof what W.H. Auden wrote in a poem called “Tonight at Seven-Thirty:” “The funniest mortals and the kindest are those who are most aware of the baffle of being, don’t kid themselves our care is consolable but believe a laugh is less heartless than tears.” P!nk, one of the world’s biggest rock stars, exemplifies that deep appreciation of humanity. Her tour, like her most recent album, is titled “Beautiful Trauma.” She embraces all of life’s struggles, losses, problems, and joys with laughter.

The film documents a portion of her pre-pandemic tour. Skillfully directed by Michael Gracey, who showed his appreciation for backstage stories with “The Greatest Showman” and “Rocketman,” the film follows P!ink and her family as they approach one of the highlights of the tour, her appearance at the legendary Wembley Stadium. There is the usual mix of rehearsal and concert footage, with perhaps more than usual of the star herself, who also produced, telling her story, which is about living at the intersection of art, commerce, and life, not trying to balance it all but trying to embrace it all at once, to integrate every part of it as seamlessly as she can. “I enjoy seeing the world with my kids as much as I enjoy nailing it on stage,” she says. “I want it to be perfect for everyone buying a ticket and in my kids’ minds.”

Essentially, she is responsible for three different jobs, though, all unimaginably all-consuming. She is the mother of Willow (age 8) and Jameson (age 3) and the wife of Carey Hart, formerly a Motocross champion, now a full-time dad. She is a Grammy award-winning mega-rock star who fills stadiums like Wembley for her concerts and thrills audience with acrobatic stunts that would be a challenge for Cirque du Soleil performers, belting out the hit songs that she wrote as she swings above the crowd, sometimes upside-down. And she is essentially the CEO of P!ink, Inc. as we see after a concert performance when she sits across a table from the people who work her show with a list of changes. For example, this venue has a stage 85,000 square feet larger than the one they had blocked the choreography on, so they need to figure out a way to adapt so that she can be where she needs to be without having to race so fast to get there that she does not have enough breath to sing. Just as she has to manage simultaneously singing and dancing (and swinging from the ceiling) she has to manage simultaneously touring and mom-ing. She laughs (of course) at one point remembering her wild child days, when she thought being a rock star meant freedom from anyone else’s rules only to find that she not only had to obey rules like being on time, she had to enforce them.

That applies to parenting, too, of course. It is a pleasure to see the patience and love P!nk and Carey show Willow and Jameson. Willow shyly asks if she can take some time off from the tour to see her friends and in one of the film’s sweetest moments, P!nk says she is proud of Willow for being able to express her feelings.

Hart does not get much time on camera until about halfway through the film, and when he refers to Alecia, it took me a moment to remember who that was. For her family, she is Alecia. And Mommy. The musical performances are thrilling, but what is most memorable about this film is Alecia/P!ink herself. She says that when you’re struggling, you imagine that if you ever get a Grammy you will take the opportunity at the podium to call out the high school principal who didn’t believe in you. But after all of the work it takes to get there, you find you are just grateful for everything that got you to that point. Watching her helps us to reframe our own lives with gratitude as well.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and explicit lyrics and some drinking of wine. There are references to past wild behavior.

Family discussion: What is P!nk’s biggest challenge, performing or being a mom? How are they different? What will her children remember about the tours?

If you like this, try: “The Other F Word” about punk and metal musicians and fatherhood.

Related Tags:

 

Documentary movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Musical

It Is Not Over Yet

Posted on April 29, 2021 at 5:20 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 30, 2021
Copyright First Hand Films 2021

One image I will remember best from “It Is Not Over Yet,” a documentary about an innovative care center for people with dementia, is the place settings. They reminded me of the good work of the Little Brothers of the Poor and Elderly, who always bring a flower and a cloth napkin when they deliver meals to people in need, because they know that those they help deserve these small touches of grace to feed their spirits as well as their bodies. At the Danish home for people with memory loss called Dagmarsminde the table settings are festive and pretty, not like the utilitarian hospital-like food trays in many facilities. Founder May Bjerre Eiby tells a group that her first job was in such a facility, all drab colors and bad smells. She became a nurse, determined to do better, but as she was saving money to create Dagmarsminde her own father became a resident of the facility where she first worked. They left his meals in his room, not understanding that he could not feed himself. He died there, she says, from neglect.

No one is neglected at Dagmarsminde, where their building principle is that “compassion is medicine.” While the average number of medications for residents in assisted living is ten per day, at Dagmarsminde it is one. Instead of medication to dull their perception, or, as in the case of one new resident, medication still being prescribed long after its ability to affect the patient was exceeded, leaving only the side effects, the residents at Dagmarsminde get cake. They get attention. Most of all, they are listened to. Just because memory is fading does not mean that a person wants to feel isolated.

Like all homes for the elderly, residents die. And when they do, the staff makes an announcement, the coffin, decorated with flowers, is brought into the area where the residents gather, and they sing a song to bid their comrade farewell. Later in the movie we see the deeply compassionate “death watching,” as the staff stays near a dying woman, making sure she is reassured and comfortable.

Copyright First Hand Films 2021

This is a Frederic Wiseman-style documentary, observation without talking head experts or statistics. We might wonder, for example, what happens when they decide to take a new resident off of the three different morphine-based medications she is on, or how (as they say) they are able to provide this staff-intensive level of care without extra cost. It is impossible not to be touched by the devoted couple knowing they are nearing the end, satisfied that their lives were good and past caring about old hurts.

Those of us who have visited our own family in memory care facilities or struggled to care for them at home will not wonder whether this is a better, more humane, more loving way to treat people with dementia. We will wonder only whether, when our time comes, we can find a place like Dagmarsminde.

Parents should know that this film deals with aging, memory loss, and death. There is some alcohol and a reference to adultery.

Family discussion: If you could build a facility for memory loss patients, what would it be like? What can we do to make more places like Dagmarsminde available?

If you like this, try: “Young at Heart” and “I Remember Better When I Paint”

Related Tags:

 

Documentary movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Posted on April 15, 2021 at 6:15 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: References to lynching and abuse
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 16, 2021
Copyright Kino Lorber 2021

Outsider artist Bill Traylor was born into slavery. Traylor was the name of the white family that enslaved him and his family. They were more benevolent than some; the plantation owner’s will provided that Bill Traylor’s family should not be split up when they divided the estate. And so, even after emancipation, Traylor’s family stayed, working as field hands and then as tenant farmers. He lived his whole life within 40 miles in Alabama, farming until he was too old and infirm. And then he spent the rest of his life in a vibrant Black community in Montgomery, fed by a deli owner and sleeping on the floor of another business, drawing and painting all day out on the sidewalk, with whatever materials were available to him, including bright blue poster paint given to him by a teenage sign-painter and torn off pieces of cardboard signs.

“Outsider art” is work created by people who are untrained, self-taught, not a part of the art community, creating art for themselves, not for galleries or museums. We do not know what Traylor would think about the way his work is revered today. In this documentary, directed by Jeffrey Wolf and executive produced by artist Sam Pollard, we hear a story of the one time he did see his work on the walls of a gallery and, according to legend “did not recognize it.” But the commentary in the film suggests that it was not is work he did not recognize but the setting that displayed them. He would be even more amazed at the seriousness with which his work is discussed by artists, curators, and scholars in this film.

I attended the first major show of Traylor’s work, at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. As they pointed out, The paintings and drawings he made are visually striking and politically assertive; they include simple yet powerful distillations of tales and memories as well as spare, vibrantly colored abstractions. When Traylor died in 1949, he left behind more than one thousand works of art. The simplified forms of Traylor’s artwork belie the complexity of his world, creativity, and inspiring bid for self-definition in a segregated culture.” His is the only substantial art we have from someone born in to slavery, and it is important as art and artifact, giving us a vital chance to see the world the way he did.

Poster from the SAAM show, Copyright 2018 Smithsonian

This film wisely takes a multi-faceted approach to Traylor’s life and work, incorporating music, dance, poetry, and commentary from historians, critics, curators, scholars, other artists, and Traylor’s own descendants. Some of the historical material is as illuminating for what we do not know as for what we do; the records of the lives of Black Americans during this period are very limited. And some of the expert commentary is more heartfelt than insightful. The best art produces an emotional connection that cannot be reduced to language. Appropriately, inevitably, what is most eloquent here are Traylor’s images themselves.

Parents should know that this film includes discussion of enslavement, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and racism as well as Traylor’s multiple children by different women.

Family discussion: Which of Traylor’s paintings did you like the best? Why wasn’t he seen as an important artist in his lifetime? What pictures can you create about the world you remember?

If you like this, try: “The Realms of the Unreal” about another outsider artist, Henry Darger

Related Tags:

 

Documentary movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews
THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2021, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at Rogerebert.com, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik