When applicants get accepted to Yale Law School, probably the last thing they expect to learn is how to make movies. But there’s a small group of students who spend nearly as much time with a camera as they do studying caselaw and prepping for final exams.
The member of Yale’s Visual Law Project are making documentary films about legal and policy issues, such as prison conditions, immigration and racial profiling. Last year, one of the films, entitled “The Worst of the Worst,” about a Connecticut prison that keeps inmates in solitary confinement year-round, was submitted for consideration to the Sundance Film Festival and profiled on MSNBC.
Making documentaries is “a unique opportunity to enhance studies but with an intangible real world impact,” said Leslie Couvillion, co-director of the student-run Visual Law Project. “A lot of what we do in law school isn’t that accessible to the outside world.”
Couvillion said the idea of pouring energy into something that is distributed to a general audience as opposed to just fellow law students and law professionals “was really exciting.” Plus, “I really cared about the issues as well.”
The Yale Visual Law Project was launched in 2010 by then-law student Valarie Kaur, who already had a background in filmmaking. Kaur had written and produced 2008′s “Divided We Fall,” a feature film that focused on racism in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks and the winner of more than a dozen international awards.
During her time at Yale, Kaur trained more than two dozen other students on various aspects of documentary filmmaking. But now she has graduated, and this academic year things are a little bit different.
“I think it’s a challenge because none of the people on the team now are professional filmmakers,” said Jessica So, director of story development for the group. “It’s also given us a lot of opportunity to step in and take ownership of what we’re doing and get hands-on experience. We do it all — the interviews, the filming, all the production, post-production.”
The Visual Law Project group consists of eight to 10 students, all law students, save for one Yale undergraduate. There’s an academic component, where students “explore the intersection of film and law,” according to the group’s website, through discussions, workshops and appearances by guest speakers.
But the focus is largely on documentary films that have ranged anywhere from a half-hour to about 70 minutes.
In 2011, the students made “Alienation,” which follows the story of two families swept up in a 2007 Baltimore immigration raid. The same year also saw the release of “Stigma,” which explores the impact of the “stop and frisk” initiative on young men of color in New York City.
Couvillion said the goal is to complete one project each semester. The group just screened a “rough cut” of its latest project for some fellow students in order to get feedback. That film, tentatively titled “Beatwalker,” is a 30-minute exploration of the New Haven Police Department’s new community policing methods.
Couvillion explained that New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman, who took over last year, is bringing back the strategy of emphasizing a community approach to fight crime. She said he has police officers out “walking beats” and interacting more with community leaders rather than simply patrolling in vehicles.
In 2011, New Haven had one of its worst years for murders, with 34. That number was cut in half in 2012, the first year of the new approach. Jessica So said that Esserman was very helpful in the making of the film, even arranging for the students to ride around with a lieutenant.
Students also did research on policing methods and did a lot of pre-interviewing to see which New Haven residents had interesting stories to tell. After that, the filmmakers did on-camera interviews, and captured footage of people in their daily lives.
Throughout the process, the group members meet regularly to offer updates on all the different tasks that go into making a documenatry. The group is currently in the post-production stage of “Beatwalker.”
“We explain through this film what is community policing, what does it entail,” said Jessica So. “It emphasizes interactions between police officers and community members where people feel like the relationship is there, police care about the community to better provide safety for citizens rather than respond in a command and control type of process.”
Couvillion said one group member is charged with promoting and distributing the finished projects. The members try to get screenings wherever possible, whether at other universities or before public interest groups.
To date, the work garnering the most publicity for the group is their documentary film about solitary confinement for the state’s worst offenders that are imprisoned at Northern Correctional Institute in Somers, Conn. “That film took us a whole year and a half to complete,” said Couvillion.
“The Worst of the Worst” explores the impact of solitary confinement at Northern and examines the future of “supermax” (short for super-maximum security) prisons in Connecticut and nationwide.
Inmates spend 23 hours per day in their cells at Northern, frequently in solitary confinement, with one hour of recreation in an enclosed outdoor pen. The documentary follows the story of three individuals whose lives have been shaped by the prison: Misael, a former inmate; Pete, a corrections officer; and Ros, a mother determined to support her incarcerated son.
The film also includes the perspectives of administrators, and includes analysis from legal scholars and other experts as it calls into question the role of super-max prisons and solitary confinement in the criminal justice system.
“Connecticut is one state, but 45 states in this country have supermax facilities,” Aseem Mehta, a Visual Law Project member, recently told WNPR public radio in Connecticut. “That means more than 80,000 people are being held in solitary each day. It’s a huge issue, and one that not many people know about. We hope to get people talking.”
While Kaur, the project’s main founder, has moved to California, current members do not necessarily have Hollywood aspirations in their immediate future. “I don’t have any prior production experience in the film world,” said Couvillion. “It’s a hard industry to break into. I don’t see myself pursuing this after law school.”
Nevertheless, Couvillion, a Louisiana native who hopes to complete a joint degree program in law and environmental studies in 2015, said she fully expects to bring her filmmaking skills into the courtroom, when appropriate.
Jennifer So, a third-year law student from San Francisco, hopes to make films after graduation, but probably won’t quit her day job as a lawyer to do so. “For me, I’m really interested in advocacy,” she said. “Whether that’s through the courts or making films, I know it’s going to be a part of what I do.”•
For more information on the Yale Visual Law Project and its films, visit the group’s website at http://yalevisuallawproject.org.