When I told a friend what film I’d be seeing on my first outing of the Montclair Film Festival, she thought it sounded as if it might be a little depressing. And she was right – but only in the important way that significant, worthy documentaries make us keenly and newly aware of injustices we did not have knowledge of before.
My takeaway from Gideon’s Army, which I saw on Tuesday evening (and has a second screening on Saturday), was that I’d seen a powerful and necessary narrative that left me with a staggering admiration for people committed to justice.
This riveting documentary follows the efforts of three public defenders in southern states, as they struggle — for a lot less money and a lot more hours and stress than seems right—to tip the balance toward fairness, providing competent counsel and proper representation to a never ending list of indigent clients. The idealistic attorneys are committed to carrying out letter and spirit of the law which makes representation available at no cost to those accused of a crime but without the means to hire their own lawyer.
Gideon’s Army was directed by Montclair resident Dawn Porter, a former corporate attorney in the entertainment business, now a full time filmmaker. This is her first entry in her hometown’s film festival, with two sold out showings. At Tuesday night’s screening, she was joined for a post-screening audience Q&A by co-producer Summer Damon, and representatives from the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Essex County Public Defenders office.
Porter wanted to showcase what it’s like to be a public defender in challenging environments. In the areas she chose, funding and resources are severely limited. Caseload numbers are nearly untenable, and mandatory minimum sentencing laws harshly restrict a public defender’s ability to persuade judges to consider mitigating circumstances that suggest a defendant – and society— would be better served with alternative sentencing.
The film’s title stems from a 1963 case when a Florida man, Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with stealing a small amount of money and a drink from a pool hall and was unable to afford legal counsel. From prison, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully arguing that he should have been assigned legal counsel even though it was not a capital offense.
The documentary cameras follow the public defenders in different counties of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, as they develop strategy for a handful of clients, some of whom it appears may be improperly charged. Yet the defenders have little to spend on building a strong case. In one case, a defender’s office cannot even pay for finger printing analysis that would prove a client was not at the scene.
In addition to intimate glimpses into the lives of both defenders and their clients, the camera also shows how a consortium of public defenders from throughout the south attempts to help members succeed and stick with their stressful jobs where low pay hardly covers their student loan payments.
Porter’s film had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was honored with the best editing award, and received recognition at the Miami Film Festival as well. She began her work on it four years ago, and is thrilled that it’s found a place at this year’s MFF.
“I never actually anticipated I would do this film. But once I started, this is such a fabulous, supportive town to work in, where everyone is always cheering for me,” Porter explained. “I wanted to find out what it’s like to defend people when you have no choice of clients. Public defenders uphold the constitution every day. It’s not a technicality for them.”
Her work was greatly advanced by a grant from the Ford Foundation. Gideon’s Army is scheduled to be broadcast on HBO Documentary Films on July 1.
To learn more about the landmark Gideon case and current issues surrounding public defenders, visit Gideonat50.