Dawn Porter and Gideon’s Army

While the documentary Gideon’s Army may not be familiar to general audiences, it is nonetheless a significant film from recent years. The film’s director, Dawn Porter, has received attention for her appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and went on to release another documentary last year.

The documentary follows three public defenders as they struggle to help their clients in a justice system set against them. The title is taken from Clarence Gideon, whose court case led to a Supreme Court ruling that defendants have the right to legal counsel, even if they cannot afford it.

This right is what drives the three lawyers, who are duty-bound to defend their clients, regardless of how convincing the case against them is. They are seen forming deep bonds with their clients, only raising the personal stakes for the outcome of the trial. The film movingly illustrates these and other struggles faced by public defenders, which are only increased by the tragic under-appreciation they receive.

The prevalence of legal dramas on television has done little to improve public awareness of how difficult this job is. Indeed, many shows focus more on the struggles of those seeking to prove guilt than those defending the accused. However, the film ensures most of its audience will see public defenders in a new light, and its positive reception and availability on Netflix will certainly increase its viewership.

In the end, one is left to wonder what it will take for the film’s concerns to grow in the forefront of America’s public consciousness. For a time in which people readily and passionately defend the rights of others, the rights of the accused still seem to go unnoticed by many. This is the core problem of the film, and though the problem has been addressed, it has yet to be solved.

Questions

  1. Why did you choose to use text instead of voiceover to convey information in the documentary?
  2. Should someone working on a documentary have a personal stake in the issue, or is it better to strive for neutrality?
  3. Are there challenges specific to documentary filmmaking that do not impact fictitious films?
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