Dawn Porter’s profile of three committed but often overwhelmed public defenders is the next film in my overview of Sundance’s US Documentary Competition: GIDEON’S ARMY
Sundance Program Description:
Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately. – Elie Wiesel
In 1963, the landmark Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright guaranteed all defendants facing imprisonment the right to a lawyer. Now, every year, millions of Americans facing trial rely on fewer than 15,000 public defenders, and the country’s justice system hangs in the balance. GIDEON’S ARMY confronts this crisis head-on, tracking a group of young southern public defenders hell-bent on protecting the sanctity of human liberty.
Taut, visceral filmmaking plunges us into the unbelievably demanding lives of three fledgling public defenders in Georgia and Mississippi. Not only are they juggling hundreds of cases independently, but their offices don’t have adequate resources, and their salaries barely cover personal expenses—including six-figure law school debts.
As all three lawyers harness ingenuity, perseverance, and adrenaline to fight for their indigent clients, we wonder, How long can they keep working in a constant state of emergency? Will they find the moral support to sustain this higher calling? And if not, what happens to our democracy?
Besides being an attorney, which informs this film, her feature directorial debut, Porter has served as an executive producer on both fiction and non-fiction projects, and worked on projects at various TV and cable networks. Joining her on the project is veteran producer Julie Goldman, who counts fellow US Doc Competition titles GOD LOVES UGANDA and MANHUNT among her slate, and is a Sundance alum several times over, including SERGIO (2009), BUCK (2011), AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY (2012), and A PLACE AT THE TABLE (2012, formerly known as FINDING NORTH).
Why You Should Watch:
As noted, Porter’s background in law gives her a natural affinity with her film’s topic, and, no doubt, enabled a rapport with Travis, Brandy, and June, her main subjects. These compelling attorneys speak candidly about the struggles of their ridiculously underpaid and often underappreciated professions, revealing fears and doubts about their commitment in the face of a system that seems rigged against their clients. Out of their seemingly endless caseloads, Porter follows a few of their clients facing life-changing legal consequences, revealing what motivates these idealistic public defenders to make their own professional and personal sacrifices in this tightly-constructed and eye-opening look at an unheralded but vital part of the justice system.
For more information and to keep updated, visit the film’s website and Facebook page. For Porter’s thoughts on the film, check out her Meet the Artists profile for Sundance and Indiewire interview. For screening dates and times at Sundance, click the link in the first paragraph.