In 2010, the city of Philadelphia launched an initiative to collect millions of dollars in outstanding court fees, supervision fees and bail judgments associated with criminal cases dating to the 1970s. The move was intended to generate much needed revenue, but people who had long since served their time were confronted by bills for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars that they’d had no idea they owed. Some are struggling to pay their mortgages or secure public benefits due to the outstanding debt; others have been threatened with jail time unless they pay.

The initiative is the focus of Pay Up! Criminal Justice Debt in Philadelphia, a 30-minute documentary produced by three students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The documentary is the centerpiece of a course called Visual Legal Advocacy, taught by law professor Regina Austin. It’s the only formal course of its kind at a U.S. law school, although Stanford Law School has a student-led project that produces legal documentaries and a similar student-run group at Yale Law School began making documentaries in 2010.

Austin started the course in 2008 to get students to view the law in a way they can’t by reading case law. It requires them to research a legal topic at length, work with lawyers involved in the issue, interact with real people facing legal problems and figure out how to tell a story in a cohesive, straightforward way.

“I think a lot of people are skeptical,” Austin said. “But it’s hard to argue with the videos. Lawyers are people of words, not images. They don’t necessarily understand that 10 minutes of video is worth five hours of reading.”

Tom Isler, who produced Pay Up! with classmates Sam Saylor and Yaya Wu, needed no convincing. Isler already had a background in filmmaking and wanted to do something a little different during his last year in law school.

‘TALKING WITH REAL PEOPLE’

“It’s a really interesting way to possibly have a real-world effect in the classroom, which is pretty rare in law school,” said Isler, who graduated in May. “You’re out there talking with people whom the law is affecting. You can’t talk to the names that appear in a casebook.”

Austin works with public interest legal groups throughout Philadelphia to generate documentary topics. Students spend an entire academic year researching, shooting footage and editing it. In the case of Pay Up!, the team interviewed many alleged debtors from whom the city was trying to collect, the lawyers representing them, court administrators and lawmakers.

In some cases, the court lacks records to substantiate the alleged unpaid fees. In others, the alleged debtors are being charged for failing to appear in court when they were being held in prison or jail at the time of the court hearing.

Creating drama out of court costs and fines wasn’t easy, Isler said, but people were eager to share their frustrations about the situation on camera because they felt that they weren’t being heard.

At the end of the academic year, the students screen their documentaries in what is called the Rough Cut Film Festival, and receive audience feedback. Other teams this year created videos about the difficulties families with disabled children face securing federal aid; the so-called school-to-prison pipeline in Philadelphia’s public schools; and the challenges facing immigrant victims of domestic violence.

In addition to learning how to interact with real people facing real legal problems, Isler said, learning how to tell a story is a skill that will come in handy down the line, particularly for litigators.

“It’s something tangible that you can point to that you made,” Isler said of the documentary. “If we can get it in front of people who have the ability to effect change, that would be the ultimate goal.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.