Reel Life: Documentary Film Legal Clinic Produces

November 8, 2019
On the set of “Ernie & Joe,” an independent documentary film that received vital assistance from UCLA Law’s Documentary Film Legal Clinic.
On the set of “Ernie & Joe,” an independent documentary film that received vital assistance from UCLA Law’s Documentary Film Legal Clinic.

Two years ago, UCLA School of Law’s Ziffren Institute for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law launched the Documentary Film Legal Clinic, a creative enterprise among law students, veteran media attorneys and independent filmmakers. The goal was to provide pro bono legal services to documentary filmmakers while giving law students opportunities to work on matters ranging from forging licensing and location agreements to vetting scripts and footage for legal concerns.

The clinic has been a huge hit. Compelling films depicting stories unlikely to be told through traditional news outlets or studios are airing at festivals around the world and on top networks including HBO and PBS. The clinic quickly attracted a full roster of students and clients, as did the Ziffren Institute’s companion Music Industry Clinic. Film Independent and the International Documentary Association, two organizations that support documentary filmmakers, have forged productive partnerships with the Documentary Film Legal Clinic.

Dale Cohen, special counsel for the PBS documentary series Frontline and an influential voice in First Amendment law, is director of the clinic. Daniel Mayeda ’82, with decades of experience as counsel for clients in television and film, is associate director. Together, they teach a weekly seminar covering media law matters from contract drafting to fair use of copyrighted material; supervise students as they perform work for clients; and oversee sessions where students provide each other with feedback on projects and challenges.

Jenifer McShane, director of Ernie & Joe, a documentary about two San Antonio police officers who grapple with the mental health issues of people they encounter on the beat, says, “As is often the case with truly independent documentary productions, I was fundraising as I was filming Ernie & Joe and there never seemed to be enough time or money to ensure I was getting sound legal advice. It gave me tremendous peace of mind to run my queries and concerns by the UCLA Documentary Film Legal Clinic and know I was always receiving well-considered and thoughtful counsel.”

Today, several of the films whose creators turned to the Documentary Film Legal Clinic have reached the public and achieved strong measures of success.

The Documentary Film Legal Clinic has handled legal matters for films including:

Bei Bei
Rose Rosenblatt, Marion Lipschutz, co-directors
The story of a pregnant Chinese immigrant whose unsuccessful suicide attempt led to a charge of murder.
Premiered at DOC NYC, the country’s largest film festival,in November 2018.

Ernie & Joe
Jennifer McShane, director
A portrait of San Antonio police officers who apply mental health principles to their police work.
Winner of special jury award, SWSX. Scheduled to air on HBO.

Made in Boise
Beth Aala, director
A look at the gestational surrogacy industry through the eyes of four women going through the process.
Scheduled to air on PBS’ Independent Lens series.

Maxima: This Land of Mine
Claudia Sparrow, director
A Peruvian subsistence farmer defends her land against a gold-mining conglomerate.
Premiered at Hot Docs Festival, Toronto in April 2019.

Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story
Dianne Fukami, director
The life and career of the former congressman and first Asian-American cabinet member.
Premiered on PBS in May 2019.

Power to Heal
Barbara Berney, director
A look at how the Medicare program was instrumental in leading to the desegregation of hospitals in the South.
Premiered on public television stations in February 2019.

The Seer and the Unseen
Sara Dosa, director
The story of an Icelandic woman seeking to block overdevelopment of a majestic landscape.
Debuted at the 2019 SF Film Festival.

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