New Day Blog

The Impact of New Day Criminal Justice Films

In honor of National Criminal Justice Month, New Day filmmakers share the ways their documentaries are making a difference on issues of genocide, drug policy, restorative justice, police brutality and immigration. Visit to see our full collection of Law and Criminal Justice titles.

Changing Immigration Policy: abUSed: The Postville Raid
by Luis Argueta


abUSed: The Postville Raid

My film abUSed: The Postville Raid shows the gripping stories of workers who survived the most expensive, controversial, and largest immigration raid in the history of the United States. On May 12th, 2008, 900 armed U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested and chained 389 Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants in Postville, Iowa. A community was decimated and families torn apart, the Constitution was trampled, due process was overlooked, and the human and labor rights of immigrant workers were brazenly violated.

Over the last three years, abUSed: The Postville Raid has screened more than 200 times at law schools, conferences, universities, high schools, churches, synagogues, community centers, labor unions and film festivals. In December of 2012 it had its national broadcast premiere as part of PBS’ America ReFramed series.

Because of the film’s visibility, I was asked by the Iowa Attorney General to help locate and accompany seven former underage workers from the Postville slaughterhouse back to the U.S. to testify at a Child Labor Violations trial against the plant’s general manager. I raised funds to hire an immigration attorney for these underage workers so they could apply for a U-Visa, a 4-year nonimmigrant visa for people who have been victims of crimes in the U.S. and are willing to collaborate with law enforcement officials in investigating or prosecuting those crimes. Six of the seven witnesses were awarded U-Visas, allowing them to petition for the immigration of their immediate family members. In three years these workers will be able to apply for Permanent Residence and eventually for Citizenship.

I also helped bring together a group of Iowa citizens to form a U-Visa Resettlement Project, which provides support for new American immigrants as they navigate the arduous process of settling and building a better future for their families, while contributing to the diversity and economies of their communities.

Exposing Cracks Between State and Federal Law: Code of the West
By Rebecca Richman Cohen

Code of the West
Photo credit: photo courtesy of Racing Horse Productions

When I headed to Montana to explore the landscape of medical marijuana, I had no idea what I would uncover. On the day the state Senate voted to uphold Montana’s medical marijuana law, federal agents raided more than 20 medical marijuana dispensaries, and a stream of indictments followed. My film, Code of the West, captured this moment and the political process of marijuana policy reform, including the touching and powerful stories of those affected by the recent federal crackdown on medical marijuana growers across the country.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, but the federal government doesn’t recognize any legitimate medical use. Code of the West is being used to spark discussion and shed light on these legal contradictions between state and federal law. Law Professor Leo Beletsky cites Code of the West as “a powerful tool for exploring the legal, social, and generational facets of today’s drug policy debate.” The Montana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) programmed a series of 20 screenings in small towns, including in many public libraries, as part of its drug policy reform civic engagement campaign. When Tom Daubert, a central character in Code of the West, was sentenced in federal court, his defense team submitted the documentary to the judge, who watched it in its entirety. Daubert’s looming 10-year sentence was reduced to no prison time and 5 years probation.

I also produced a New York Times opinion video, The Fight Over Medical Marijuana, which became a viral phenomenon. Chris Williams, the subject and a founding partner of Montana Cannabis, was convicted on marijuana and related gun charges. He faced a minimum mandatory sentence of more than 80 years in prison. Two months after Chris’s conviction and tens of thousands of petition signatures later – in an incredibly rare, some say unprecedented move – federal prosecutors dropped six of the eight charges. Many supporters attributed the U.S. Attorney’s decision to public pressure and visibility.

Breaking Down Barriers to Communication: Concrete, Steel & Paint
By Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza

Concrete, Steel & Paint
Inmate artists at Graterford prison
Photo credit: Tony Heriza

Concrete, Steel & Paint tells a complex story about men in prison, victims of crime, and an artistic partnership that helps bridge the gap between them. The film raises questions about crime, justice and reconciliation, puts a human face on crime and incarceration, and demonstrates the value of bringing people in prison together with the outside community. It also shows the power of public art to build and restore community relationships. Over the past three years, screenings with judges, prisoners and corrections workers have stimulated interest in rehabilitative programs like the ones documented in the film.

In 2013, a dialogue and engagement project – conceived in consultation with leading practitioners in the fields of criminal and restorative justice – will use Concrete, Steel & Paint to help bring together “victims’ rights” and  “justice reform” advocates to enhance public safety and community well-being. The goal is to promote alternatives to punitive forms of justice and encourage more restorative and healing approaches.

This project is a partnership between the filmmakers, the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) at Eastern Mennonite University, and the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a Washington DC-based justice reform think tank whose grassroots work in Baltimore, Maryland will be the focus of the project’s pilot phase. Paul Ashton of JPI says the film “challenges the preconceived notions of people incarcerated and victims harmed by crime. It helps to demonstrate the importance of recognizing harm and opening dialogue. It shows that where there is conflict, the potential also exists to open up the conversation and begin thinking about what else is possible.”

CJP professor Carl Stauffer, another project partner, believes that film can help communities reclaim their power to change the justice system. “We have relinquished our agency for public debate and advocacy action to lobbyists, special interest groups and private consultants,” he says. “Concrete, Steel & Paint opens up a new discursive space for all stakeholders who have been adversely affected by crime and violence to re-narrate the meaning of justice.”

Taking Education to the Streets: Every Mother’s Son
By Tami Gold

Every Mother’s Son
Iris Baez,  Kadiatou Diallo, and Doris Busch Boskey
Three mothers profiled in EVERY MOTHER’S SON
Photo Credit: Anna Curtis

I just heard announced, on Pacifica Radio, that a screening of our documentary Every Mother’s Son is being held to raise funds for families of police brutality victims in Brooklyn. Eight years after our film premiered on PBS’ POV series, it continues to be screened in libraries, churches and community organizations, often at the request of families of men recently killed by the NYPD or other cities’ police officers.

Last month, WABC-TV did an interview with us about the film and about “quality of life” policing, racial profiling and the high number of stops-and-frisks in New York City.  An email from a New Jersey resident who saw the segment captured the sentiment of many: “Great to see your story! Sad to see that it is still so relevant! So much work remains to be done!”

Every Mother’s Son is a character-driven documentary with a deep analysis about policing in urban America. The film provides a historical context for the events currently unfolding. Without these layers the film would have become dated as the stories about the featured mothers came to a close.

For the past 5 years a group of Harlem based African-American activists have been using Every Mother’s Son in their monthly workshops.

“When I first saw the film,” explains Sediki Ojure Olugbala, one of the groups leaders, “it made an immediate connection in terms of the work we had begun.” In this short video, Olugbala explains how they use the film in their organizing:

Interview with community organizer Sadiki Ojore Olugbala from Kelly Anderson on Vimeo.

Another organizer, King Downing, explains how he uses the film, and talks about the importance of independent media viewpoints when it comes to issues like police brutality:

Interview with community organizer King Downing from Kelly Anderson on Vimeo.

We first met Olugbala and King when we launched a mini-grant initiative, whereby individuals could apply for a small grant to screen the film in their community. We supplied the recipients with DVDs, posters and study guides.  Many who received grants are still using the film in their work.

Recently, a young woman who attended a workshop asked for her own copy of the film.  She is a college student and is creating a student-based group about policing in and around the college she attends.

I wish Every Mother’s Son was collecting dust on my shelf. But sadly, the demand for tools like this is greater than ever.

Film as Evidence: Granito: How to Nail a Dictator
By Pamela Yates

The Caba family of Ilom, Guatemala
Photo credit: Dana Lixenberg

I went to Guatemala in 1982 to make my first feature-length documentary, When the Mountains Tremble. In that film, protagonist Rigoberta Menchú laid out what was happening from the Mayan perspective: why they were fighting, and how the civilian population was being viciously targeted by the Army in a scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign backed by the United States.

After Peace Accords were signed in Guatemala in 1996, a Truth Commission uncovered evidence that “acts of genocide” had been perpetrated by the State. This occurred during the bloody tenure of General Efraín Ríos Montt, the President and Head of the Armed Forces from 1982 to 1983, a period when civilian massacres spiked. Yet whenever the possibility of seeking justice for Ríos Montt’s horrific crimes came to the fore, the General and his lawyers made excuses. Their primary assertion was that the General hadn’t known about it, nor had he ordered it. They ascribed the massacres to “rogue” elements within the Army.

In 2003 I went to Guatemala to present the first public screening of When the Mountains Tremble, at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. Although it had premiered at the first Sundance Film Festival and been broadcast throughout the world, the film had been banned in Guatemala for 20 years. The auditorium was packed. As I entered, people told me they had shown When the Mountains Tremble clandestinely thousands of times during the war years.

In the audience that night was an international attorney. She approached me and asked whether I had kept the filmic outtakes from When the Mountains Tremble.  She was investigating a genocide case, and two of the generals in When the Mountains Tremble — General Efraín Ríos Montt and General Benedicto Lucas García — were part of that investigation. Could I find the entire interviews I’d done with the generals? Did I have film of military missions, including aftermaths of massacres?

My Skylight Pictures partners – Producer Paco de Onís and Editor Peter Kinoy – and I embarked on a kind of archeological dig through 25-year-old outtakes of 16mm negative film and ¼ inch audio recording tape. Miraculously, we had kept all of the raw footage in a warehouse in the swamplands of New Jersey.

The lawyers were as surprised as we were when they saw the outtakes. In 1982, I had asked Rios Montt, “What would you say to the charges that it’s the Army that is massacring (Mayan) peasants in the highlands? Is there repression on the part of the Army?” and he responded, “There is no repression on the part of the Army. Our strength is in our capacity to make command decisions. The Army is ready and able to act, because if I don’t control the Army, then what am I doing here?”

My filmic evidence helped prove the prosecution’s “command responsibility” liability theory: Ríos Montt ordered the targeted killings.

“I Control the Army” - Rios Montt in “Granito:How to Nail a Dictator” from Skylight Pictures on Vimeo.

All of this, and the legal case, became part of the film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. I was asked to testify in the case, showing and verifying the filmed material in court. I entered DVDs of the outtakes and entire transcripts of interviews that had been typed on a manual typewriter in triplicate with carbon paper, as exhibits into the record. I vowed never to throw out anything ever again.

“Granito,” or “tiny grain of sand,” is a Mayan concept based in their communal values. The idea is that each of us has something to contribute to positive social change (or in this case, justice), and that together we can make that change. The survivors, forensic anthropologists, archivists, and attorneys inside Guatemala and around the world have been tirelessly contributing their granitos for decades.

In the past year the gathering of evidence and testimonies, plus the political will to prosecute in Guatemala, have reached a justice tipping point. Last week, a Guatemalan judge cleared the way forward.

Ríos Montt’s trial begins.

These are just a sampling of the rich and diverse collection of films in New Day’s Law and Criminal Justice category.

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