Since 2006, The Fordham Law Film Festival has been screening legal movies followed by a discussion led by an influential member or leader of the legal community—and at no charge. Now in its fifth year, the free festival kicks off tomorrow and lasts until the 21st. Among the six films chosen to be shown is 12 Angry Men, (which was screened in the festival's inaugural year) with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor leading a discussion afterwards. Among the other guests are the controversial Jack Kevorkian discussing the HBO film about him, You Don't Know Jack (Al Pacino plays Kevorkian), and Jeffrey Tambor discussing And Justice For All, the 1979 Norman Jewison-directed film featuring Pacino as a young defense attorney.
The man at the helm of this project is Thane Rosenbaum, the John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law and the Director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at the Fordham University School of Law. With the Fordham Law Film Festival he hopes to create an interdisciplinary connection between film and law. Having written three works of fiction and countless legal journal articles and nonfiction work, the link between law and art is all too familiar to Thane. This week we spoke to him about the Festival.
The Fordham Law Film Festival started in 2006, what have the audiences typically looked like? Mostly law students or is there a broader diversity? Actually, our audience mostly consists of lay persons and legal civilians, with very few lawyers, judges, or law students. We are a public Forum, and we take the public part seriously. The New Yorkers who attend our events are the same people who go to Broadway shows, rock concerts, poetry readings, and dance recitals--although this week we have many people who have a special interest in movies.
What were your expectations for the Festival when you first started it? We knew that there was a large audience out there who enjoy seeing the legal system turned into art, whether through courtroom thrillers, feature films, or more recent TV dramas like "The Good Wife" and "The Defenders." But we also knew that no law school has ever attempted to address the public's longing to see legal and moral issues portrayed as art. We knew that if we built it they wold eventually come.
You've got Jack Kevorkian speaking on your first night, was there any hesitation in inviting such a controversial figure? Well, we are a Jesuit school, but Jesuits are not known to protest loudly and disruptively (Thane wrote, kiddingly). The Forum on Law, Culture & Society is independent, but we do operate out of a university and a university community. Fordham is first and foremost a place of ideas, and the right to die is one of those ideas that while controversial, raises many issues about humanity that deserves to be part of a broader public conversation.
You also have Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor discussing 12 Angry Men, how did you approach her? Actually, Justice Sotomayor attended our very first event as a member of our audience. The evening was a conversation with playwright Tony Kushner and novelist E.L. Doctorow about the the way the Rosenberg trial and execution still influences the artistic imagination. At the time Justice Sotomayor was a federal appeals court judge in Manhattan. When I learned that she was already one of us, I reached out to her--specifically for the Film Festival, and she most graciously accepted the invitation. I think this speaks so well of her--a Supreme Court Justice who has always been open to broader cultural influences in the way she sees the world.
Do you pick the films that are screened, or do the speakers pick them? For the entire life of the Film Festival, all five years, I have selected each film, except in one case: I deferred to Justice Sotomayor to select the film that she most wanted to discuss, and she picked 12 Angry Men.
What kind of relationship does Fordham Law have with the city? Was the proximity to Lincoln Center a factor in creating this festival? The law school's motto is: In the service of others. It's quite a romantic vision for a law school to have, but Fordham does have the Stein Center for Law and Ethics, and Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, and the Institute on Law, Religion and the Lawyer's Work, so on many levels there is a desire to serve the public good. As for the Forum on Law, Culture & Society, our role is expressly dedicated to images of the law in popular culture and the way society perceives the law, so in that way it's great to have a Lincoln Center address, given the fact that Lincoln Center is a cultural touchstone and gathering point.
In summer 2009 you wrote in the Huffington Post "New York City is simply too big, stimulating and richly talented to fail." in regards to the recession hitting New York. Do you stand by these words now? I do. Look, clearly many New Yorkers have experienced a great deal of pain and loss these past two years--with job losses, the housing crisis, and economic hardship. But New York is still very much a resilient city; it still is very much a magnet and beacon to the world, a magical island where dreams are both imagined and realized. How many cities could have recovered from 9/11 and still managed to radiate a message of hope, upward achievement, and cultural vitality? How many cities would have still be attractive to tourists and strivers? Yes, there has been pain, but if you look around, you see a lot of New Yorkers living their lives and embracing the moment with very little interruption.
The First Amendment has been brought up a lot lately in regards to the PARK51 development. Given that Fordham is both a law school located in New York and one of your participants is the ADL's Abe Foxman what have the discussions at the law school over the development sounded like? I actually wrote an essay in the Huffington Post about the Ground Zero mosque. As for the law school, the discussions have not been nearly as robust as most people might expect, largely because there's no true legal issue that is involved--it's mostly a moral issue, and law schools don't spend a lot of time dealing with questions of public morality. The owners of the property have a legal right to build their mosque--they have received all of the necessary approvals and they have an absolute First Amendment right to worship in America. Whether they should be erecting a large building dedicated to Islam and worshiping two blocks from Ground Zero is an altogether separate question that involves matters of common decency and civic harmony.
What are your favorite legal movies? The Verdict,12 Angry Men, A Few Good Men, A Civil Action, The Accused, actually, too many to count, which is why I needed to direct a Film Festival dedicated to movies about the law so we could showcase their endless variety.
How do you think law and culture intermingle? One of our favorite references to art in a court ruling is Judge Jed Rakoff's decision that a party celebrating a graffiti video game must go on. The city claimed that the party would inspire graffiti, but Rakoff disagreed, writing, "By the same token, presumably, a street performance of 'Hamlet' would be tantamount to encouraging revenge murder. As for a street performance of 'Oedipus Rex, 'don't even think about it." And yet I would say that even if consumers of legal culture (films, movies, plays) choose to act on what they've seen, that's not, in all cases, such a terrible thing. Something was, indeed, rotten in Denmark, and there was no legal institution that was prepared to bring justice to the murder of Hamlet's father, the murdered king. Something had to be done to right the wrong and to remember the king by punishing those who murdered him.
The take away message from Hamlet is a cautionary warning to or our legal system is: Punish the guilty, because if you don't, or,worse, if you won't,we will all be exposed to vigilante justice. And yes, of course, Oedipus had that creepy incestuous thing with his mother, but the larger themes of the play is a reminder to our own legal system that truth matters, that the truth must always be discovered, that the moral foundations of civilization crumble if the truth is buried and crimes go unpunished an unacknowledged. The point is: I am not worried that people will read novels or see movies and will replicate what they've seen. I'm more worried that the legal system itself won't see how important it is for ordinary people to know that the legal system can do its job correctly and fairly.