The pioneering filmmaker John Grierson, who coined the term “documentary,” described it as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Documentary work may take any of numerous forms (including non-fiction writing, film, photography, podcast, painting or poetry). In this seminar, we will sample several of these genres as applied to the legal system. Doing so offers a number of valuable lessons for lawyers, allowing us to grapple with questions like how does society view the legal system and its impact on individuals, communities, and organizations? How can we use documentary to educate people about law and the legal system? How might we use it to advocate on behalf of a client or cause? What can we learn about law practice — including trial practice, investigation, negotiation, and case evaluation — from documentary work? Robert J. Flaherty, a prospector’s son who directed and produced the first commercially successful documentary film, said of prospecting, “Go out looking for one thing, and that’s all you’ll ever find.” Might lawyers and documentarians alike do well to heed his point?
For each seminar session, we will view a film, read a book or article, or engage with documentary works of photography or poetry. We will critically evaluate each documentary work’s approach to its subject matter — is it balanced? What is the documentarian’s point of view? Are some documentaries more accurately called propaganda? How do we as readers or viewers shape the message the documentarian seeks to convey? Finally, we will consider how the work’s artistic rendering enhances or detracts from its message. Students will write reflection papers periodically during the term and will also create a short documentary piece, which may be a film, podcast, photo essay, brief article, etc.