Welcome, everyone. My name is Valarie Kaur, and I’m the director of the Yale Visual Law Project. It is my great pleasure to welcome you tonight to this special advanced screening of the first-year films of the Project. First, I’m going to tell you a little bit about our grand experiment. Then we’ll share our films with you and invite the whole team up for a rich discussion about the films, what we learned in our first year, and the role of visual advocacy in the legal field.
So what is the Yale Visual Law Project? As many of you know, I came to law school three years ago as a filmmaker. In the first week of school, I shared my film in this very room with many of you. Back then, I spoke about the legal field and classrooms like this one as fighting rings, where we would wield the law to beat our opponents with our arguments. I saw filmmaking as a way to melt that fighting ring into a circle around a fire, where we would tell stories that changed hearts and minds from the inside. Both were different ways to effect change and advance justice. I saw them as opposed. It wasn’t long before this changed: I saw stories all over the law, storytelling coursing through the life of our cases and arguments and briefs. The legal field is a site for narrative contestation, a battle of storytelling. But I also saw the absence of stories. The stories of people who most bear the consequences of the law, their faces and voices are often left out of legal analysis and debate. So that gave rise to the question: if law is about narrative contestation, and film best makes vivid buried stories, how can we better use film in the legal field, both inside and outside the courtroom, to advance the public interest?
Last spring, a group of students gathered in my apartment down the street to answer just that question by workshopping a crazy idea – a pilot program that would explore the intersection between law and film. We didn’t approach filmmaking as a mere translation tool, translating what was on the page to the big screen. Rather we wanted to take seriously film as a form of knowledge production that added something new and valuable. We started by looking at filmmakers like Errol Morris and Fred Wiseman and others, who were making legal arguments through their films. Then we turned to the legal field, and we noticed that in the last decade, visual and digital technologies have transformed the practice of law, and it’s still changing before our eyes. Lawyers are using videos to present evidence, closing arguments, and victim-impact statements. Outside the courtroom, lawyers are turning to viral videos to advance public education campaigns, from Guantanamo detentions, to gay marriage, to immigrants’ rights. And we have seen legal scholars, including some of our professors, debating their ideas on film in the legal blogosphere or venture into collaborations with documentary filmmakers.
We now have a media-saturated profession. So everyone’s doing it. But no one is really teaching it or reflecting upon it. Most law schools aren’t teaching students to make arguments through video and images, otherwise known as visual advocacy, as part of our education. We learn legal research and writing; what about learning, critiquing, exploring visual advocacy as part of our legal education?
So we students put together an ambitious proposal for a program that would do just that. In collaboration with teaching fellows, filmmakers, and others who generously devoted their time and energy, we developed a year-long inter-disciplinary course integrating legal theory, film theory, and production skills for law students. We aimed to produce high production value films on legal issues. Dean Robert Post, Megan Barnett and Professor Jack Balkin heard our vision, believed in us, and gave us a home in the Information Society Project, and said GO.
Over the course of the year, nine students and three teaching fellows traveled what has felt to be an epic journey together. We met formally every Wednesday night for two hours. The first hour, theory; the second hour, practice. In the first hour, we watched films and read articles and had rich discussions about the intersections between film and law with students, faculty, and renowned guest speakers, including award-winning filmmakers. In the second hour, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.
Law students who had little or zero film experience last September became writers, directors, and producers. Students produced legal memos, story outlines, pre-interviews and interviews, production shoots. They learned how to operate a camera, set up lighting and sound, shoot original footage, and edit films on Final Cut Pro. They learned how to work in partnership with professional cinematographers and editors. We weren’t teaching students to become filmmakers – this is a law school, not film schools – but we were equipping students to partner with professional technicians on film projects.
So keeping up with our robust curriculum would have been enough. And producing films with first-year students would have been enough. But in addition, students became board members who did the development, distribution, outreach, communications, and finance work to help build the foundation for the project inside YLS. We have been toiling away! And we haven’t shared much with the law school publicly, because we knew we were still experimenting. But tonight, we made it.
At our retreat at the beginning of the year, I used the analogy of a ship. Filmmaking is fundamentally collaborative, I said. So this project would feel like navigating uncharted waters together in exploring visual advocacy, and like a crew on a ship, we would need one another. It’s been a truly tumultuous journey. We’ve weathered entirely unexpected storms, many that we hadn’t quite been prepared to weather. And along the way, we realized that we were building the ship as we sailed! Literally building a structure that would support our filmmaking projects. And we did it. It hasn’t been easy. We are back at the shore, so to speak. And we are ready to show you what we found. So tonight, we are pleased to share with you our first-ever films of the Yale Visual Law Project.
Excerpted from remarks by Founding Director Valarie Kaur at the Visual Law Project’s inaugural film screening on Tuesday, April 25, 2011.