Dawn Porter Explains The Origins Of ‘Gideon’s Army’

Premiering today at the Sundance Film Festival, TAA alum Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army follows three young, committed Public Defenders who are dedicated to working for the people society would rather forget.

Here Porter tells us how an interest in being a lawyer led to her making the film.

I have wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember and I still remember how excited I was on the first day of classes. When I was a law student I worked in one of the legal clinics that represents victims of domestic violence and I loved being able to stand up for people who were mistreated by the people closest to them. I knew some public defenders, but I wasn't attracted to their work—I felt like they represented the people who were always beating up my clients! So when I met Jonathan Rapping in 2009, I really had little idea about what public defense work was all about. 

"Rap" invited me to attend and film the Southern Public Defender Training Center's program in Birmingham Alabama. Each year SPDTC invites a new class of students to join them for two weeks of intensive skills training and community building. What I saw really affected me. There were all these bright motivated young people who could not wait to get to work representing poor people in the south. The energy they had and their commitment was so impressive. I didn't know any lawyers like these young people. I really wanted to understand what motivated them to keep going with such tough conditions, low pay, long hours, clients accused of terrible things, seeing terrible things happen to their clients despite their best efforts. I wanted to know what would make anyone want to do that job. 

When we left Alabama I worked with an editor to create a 17-minute character reel, and from that initial footage the Ford Foundation gave me a grant to begin filming. In 2011, (after two tries—don't give up!) I was accepted into the Tribeca All Access Program and that's when so much happened. Incredible producer Julie Goldman agreed to take on the film, and we met with HBO at TAA. HBO bought the film while we were still shooting before we even had a rough cut—I think they knew before we did how strong it could be. 

But even with all that incredible support, it’s much harder to make a film than I could ever have imagined. Since I live in New Jersey and all my characters are in other states, it was always a challenge to figure out how to get there to film with them. It’s also not easy to film in court or prison, so we spent many weeks gaining access to jails and courtrooms across the South. We were lucky to be able to film in jails in Mississippi and Atlanta and also in courtrooms in Jackson, Gainesville, and Atlanta documenting what really happens. If you want an eye opener, try sitting in arraignment court in New Orleans for a day.  

It probably sounds naïve, but I didn't fully anticipate how making this film would affect me emotionally. I saw such heartbreaking things; young people who were innocent pleading guilty to crimes, for example, and I could not help but think of my own two sons and how each mother must have felt so helpless as she watched her child being taken away in handcuffs. Throughout filming what really kept me going (in addition to loving these lawyers), was learning how truly awful our criminal justice system is for millions of poor people. But I also saw what a difference it made to have lawyers like Travis and Brandy and June fighting for poor people’s rights. Whatever sacrifices I made are nothing in comparison to what these lawyers and their clients go through and I am so heartened that a large audience will get to know them. 

Gideon’s Army
will air on HBO in 2013.