Testing Early Rough Cuts of Our Films on a Small Audience

At this week’s meeting, we somehow managed to attract two more fascinating guest speakers to our Visual Law Practicum. The first was Dave Saldana, who has been a producer, journalism professor, First Amendment lawyer, and communications director. Joe Friedman, who has acted as a director of photography at various points on both of our films, served as our second guest of the day. Together, they introduced (and re-introduced) themselves to the class, and talked about how they got started in filmmaking.

In the ensuing screening and discussion of our films, we focused on two sets of questions: What are we most struggling with in our latest cut? And how can we make our films better in the coming weeks as we prepare to screen footage for faculty members, the dean of the law school, and eventually other students? We focused on three specific questions: How can we cut the film down to a more manageable size? Is it missing a strong counter-argument? Is it clear what the argument in the film is?

We screened the immigration team’s film first. What follows is a short sampling of comments given by various guests and students.

The film came alive the moment we saw Ernesto. Until then, it felt a bit like fishing: a lot of static shots, a lot of moving shots, shadows, no idea where things were going at first. The strongest thing you have are the people – they just pierce your heart. I would decrease subtitle size, and add a drop shadow. As one human being listening to another human being speak, this is what matters – trying to see into a person, and seeing his family. Father taking his two kids out into the park; they’re just people, you’ve seen them on the street, they’re not an abstraction. The mother. That just tugs at your heart.

Initially, I wanted to know: who are these people? What is their deal? Towards the end, I realized that it doesn’t matter. In terms of getting the other side onscreen, I don’t know if you need an interview, but you need to give the other side a voice, or a quote from Janet Reno, or a video from Bush. This can also be supplied by non-institutional voices. But if you’re showing negative signs and anti-immigration snippets, you need to give context to those. Also, I don’t think the city of Baltimore needs to be a character; you can make this more like Anytown, USA.

Can we supply any background information about when Ernesto came to the US? You want to establish him as someone who didn’t just jump the fence four months ago, who has been here for awhile.

One way to direct this might be to a build from a wall of bad but rational-sounding arguments, to full-out anti-immigration advocacy (as an inciting incident), towards the crashing down of the wall. It’s important to show what’s at stake in the film.

Also you may want to move the quote about violence done against a non-polity towards the end. The point slips by when it’s at the beginning. Of course, there’s still a need to preserve the legal argumentative structure of the film.

As opposed to a larger structure, like the olocaust, where you’ve got an incredibly large event and you need to narrow down to the human stories that are part of that structure, in this situation, you’ve got an incredibly human story and you need to magnify it to explain the depth and breadth of what’s at stake.

We then screened a draft of the criminal team’s film. Again, here are some comments and reactions from the conversation about this film that followed our screening.

It would be useful to have experts weigh in at various junctures in the film, particularly where certain personal claims are made by the film’s subject that could be extrapolated to a broader audience. You can weave your expert and empirical clips into the documentary as it’s already structured, so that you have three parts that complement the others. It’s a very important structural technique to go from anecdotal to empirical to the broader claims you are making. Take one person’s human story, put the science and the facts to it, and you can take it beyond the one person’s story at the same time you humanize the science and empiricize the anecdote.

It’s also fine for the project to be experimenting in making different sequences available online, and giving viewers the option to choose which tracks they want to see.

I was not bothered by the lack of family context for the film’s main character; he was easy to look at, very thoughtful about what he had to say. It was very evocative.

As you’re watching the documentary, you think: wouldn’t it be neat if they explored that further? And the answer for many PBS documentaries is that many of these separate pieces are online. So you can do the same, and put extra footage online.


Summarizing these discussions, we discussed our obligations to the truth and the ways in which we can make our points strongly, both as legal advocates and even as visual storytellers, while still adhering to the truth. We thought also about various emotional triggers that we can use to give our films more resonance.

Thanks to our guests and to members of the Visual Law Project for another great meeting and conversation!


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