By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood November 14, 2013 at 12:00PM
Dawn Porter: Gideon's Army is a feature-length documentary about three young, highly motivated and talented lawyers who work as public defenders, or lawyers who defend poor people accused of crimes. The film follows their emotional and professional journeys and their efforts to provide a good defense.
WaH: What drew you to this story?
DP: I was a lawyer but never a public defender, and I frankly could not understand why anyone would want to do that job. In 2009 I met Jonathan Rapping and he invited me to his legal training program for new public defenders in Birmingham, Alabama. I began following young lawyers in his program. What I saw during filming truly horrified me: innocent people in prison for months or years pleading guilty to get out of jail; onerous sentences for minor crimes; people losing their civil rights, like the right to vote, as a result of criminal convictions. I also saw what a difference it made to have great lawyers. At first, I was more focused on capturing their stories, then on the idea of a feature film. I just wanted to show what they were seeing.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
DP: There are very few cases that go to trial and we really wanted to show a case through to a trial by jury. We lucked out in finding not only a great trial, but also great characters in Demontes and his mother.
It was also challenging to get access to prisons and to the courtrooms, but I'm pretty stubborn.
WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?
DP: Don't give away your power. Work with great people and let them do their jobs. Don't micromanage -- that's not power, that's just awful. But always remember: you have a vision and you may have to shout to have it be heard, but it's worth shouting about.
WaH: Whats the biggest misconception about you and your work?
DP: That I woke up one day in my law firm and decided to make a movie. I worked for ABC News for more than six years reviewing scripts and watching rough and final cuts of news pieces of all lengths, and then did a similar job at A&E for five years. Over time, I really learned about effective storytelling and I had a particular interest in letting the characters tell their story.
WaH: Do you
have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for
the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?
DP: One of the things that has been so tough for me to watch is the decline of support for old-fashioned reporting. Documentary is not news, but increasingly, we filmmakers are the ones taking a long look at topics. And the networks and traditional media are embracing that. CNN now has a documentary film division, as does Time and Al Jazeera America. They are all interested in our work, which is good for people with a story to tell.
WaH: Name your favorite women directed film and why.
DP: Middle of Nowhere by the awesome Ava Duvernay and Kathryn Bigelow's Hurt Locker, which is just a spectacularly paced and tightly driven thriller where she gets to blow stuff up. I'd like to blow stuff up.
Watch the trailer for Gideon's Army: