Public knowledge about law is vital in the same way that public engagement with politics and society matters. Liberty and democracy depend on informed and motivated communities. Yet crucial questions involving law are too often inaccessible to nonlawyers.
Lawyers tend to spend little time educating anyone other than their clients, or other lawyers when they act as judges and administrators. Lawyers also deploy technical words and seldom know how to produce the visual media so effective in shaping public knowledge. For these reasons, I decided to offer a course on documentary filmmaking for students at Harvard Law School.
Law and documentary film may seem far apart, but they actually share many connections. Documentary filmmakers confront legal questions about privacy, secrecy, access to public and private spaces, and ownership of images and other materials. Lawyers increasingly use video interviews and computer-generated graphics in hearings and negotiations. Mass media culture informs views of legal decision-makers and everyone’s pictures of courts and law.
With the guidance of filmmaker and producer Joseph Tovares and support from the Hewlett Foundation, 12 law students from eight countries have worked since January on the Legal Lens project, producing the five short films hosted on our website. (Use the navigation menu at the bottom of this story to select a film.)
The students sought stories involving the overarching themes of home and homelessness. In law, “home” means a person’s residence or intended place of residency. In life, “home” so often centers around family, safety, community, and meaning. The films address the recent elimination of Temporary Protective Status for longtime immigrants raising their American-born children in the United States; displacement of working-class families due to economic development in a harbor-front community; challenges navigating work and home due to historic treatments of pregnancy and parenting; threats to a residential neighborhood posed by flooding risks at an oil and gas facility; and challenges returning home for a military veteran with untreated trauma and a criminal conviction.
Each film provides a legal lens exposing where laws contribute to problems and how law provides levers for change. Can federal courts recognize rights for people who relied for decades on immigration laws suddenly changed by a new government? Can the requirement included in city zoning laws of community meetings before economic development be made accessible and real for working families? Should a company have duties to act against risks from climate change — and duties to disclose what it has and has not done? How can law enforcement help veterans — and indeed, anyone struggling to return to home and community after stumbling because of trauma and substance abuse? When do individuals stand up for their rights and help others do the same? If law seems absent from a social problem, how can its contribution and resources nonetheless be made visible?
The films about topics deeply affecting people’s lives illuminate these questions. They explore multiple sources of jeopardy to people’s homes and also shed light on law as, at times, a problem, at other times a resource, and always a presence in the structures of power, governance, and opportunity. Enlarging public knowledge about law and enlarging lawyers’ understanding of visual media, we might well enlarge the possibilities for realizing justice.
To view the films, use the navigation menu below.
Martha Minow, former dean of Harvard Law School, is a professor at Harvard.