Law students advocate through film

Amidst law reviews and court cases, filmmaking is establishing itself as a new form of legal scholarship at Yale Law School.

Founded in 2010 by a group of YLS students and filmmakers, the Visual Law Project produces documentaries on controversial legal issues such as immigration policy and maximum security detentions. The VLP team, which is currently composed of five members and five directors, distributes these films across the country to varied outlets including universities and correctional institutes. A year after releasing a film called “The Worst of the Worst,” which exposed the reality of solitary confinement in Connecticut’s only super-maximum security prison and received widespread media attention, the VLP team is now working on a documentary about immigration reform that was commissioned by the nongovernmental organization Human Rights First.

“The VLP brings boots-on-the-ground issues into the ivory tower,” Rebecca Wexler LAW ’16 said, adding that the project takes these issues and produces “accessible impact-driven scholarship.”

Wexler, an independent filmmaker, was hired to teach film skills to the VLP team during the project’s pilot year. While working with the group, Wexler said she was inspired by the philosophy and mission of the VLP and decided to apply to YLS. Once admitted, Wexler joined the VLP team.

The project aims to establish films and filmmaking as a new analytic tool for legal research and education, she said.

Jessica So LAW ’14, who is on the board of directors this year, said the VLP team focuses on using storytelling and advocacy to raise awareness about legal policy issues rather than focusing on the policy itself. The goal is to show the impact of the policies on people involved, said Leslie Couvillion FES ’15 LAW ’15, another director.

“Even though we have to spend some time laying out the legal framework, what is ultimately most compelling are the stories of those people whose lives are affected by the laws we are questioning or challenging,” Couvillion said.

The team works closely with legal scholars, who advise them on technical questions, she added.

Aseem Mehta ’14, the only undergraduate in the VLP team, said that the project strives to give the most complete perspective possible, not only that of the victims. For the film “The Worst of the Worst,” the team captured the stories of the prison employees as well as the inmates, he said.

“[The prison workers] said that this was a very accurate portrayal of their experience, in a way that no other media outlet has done,” Mehta said. “Similar brutality and trauma happens to you even if you’re working in a correctional institute.”

Shortly after the film’s release, the maximum security prison, the Northern Correctional Institute, closed down one of its wings.

More so than other mediums, film enables the inclusion of all perspectives, Wexler said. She added that, through shooting and editing, the filmmaker is always looking for alternate points of view.

Hope Metcalf, who runs a clinic at YLS that works for some of the inmates featured in “The Worst of the Worst,” said she would normally be skeptical about working with filmmakers out of fear that her clients might be misrepresented, but she said that she was impressed by how balanced and professional the VLP team’s approach has been.

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who advised the team on a documentary they made on stop-and-frisk in Connecticut, said that the VLP takes an ordinary concept — lawyers telling stories about cases and the people involved in them — and applies it in an innovative and effective way.

“There is no reason at all that legal cases have to be told through the dusty dry language of legal briefs and judges’ opinions,” Harris said. “Film is a very strong medium, a way of telling a story that has a high impact.”

Couvillard said the documentary about immigration reform, which will be completed in December, is a positive development because the team will have almost total control of the creative process, while Human Rights First will be covering the costs of production. Costs for these films range between $10,000 and $20,000, she said.

Currently, 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement in the United States.

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