A new media project called Defender offers a creative storytelling platform for underserved communities in the criminal justice system who cannot afford legal representation. Defender is the brainchild of filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani, who cofounded the production company Even/Odd Films, and Santhosh Daniel of Compound, a communications firm. The pair teamed up with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in an unprecedented collaboration whose goal is to bring the voices of San Francisco’s indigent community to the fore in art, film, and media.
Defender is the first in a series of media-based ventures to come out of the Adachi Project, an initiative created by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in honor of the late Jeff Adachi who worked in the office for 32 years and served as the elected Public Defender for 15 years. Adachi was also an avid documentary filmmaker who dreamed of fusing film and advocacy work.
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“Jeff Adachi was a local superhero for me,” Gorjestani told Hyperallergic. “He was a real crusader for justice, and he was also a huge fan of film and storytelling as a tool to bring reform, change, and awareness to the injustices of the criminal legal system.”
Shortly after Adachi’s death in 2019, the Public Defender’s Office reached out to Gorjestani and Daniel to develop a platform to educate the public on their work and the clients they serve. Through this unique partnership, attorneys working in the San Francisco Public Defender’s office can pitch ideas to the creative team of Even/Odd and Compound who will storyboard the concepts and develop content shaped around these compelling stories and the deeply complicated challenges their clients face.
The first film release, available to stream online, is titled One Eleven Taylor and takes place in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, where severe economic, social, and criminal justice inequities become a breeding ground for a deadly coronavirus outbreak.
The Tenderloin has long held an infamous reputation as the rough underbelly of the city. Garbage lines the sidewalks alongside the encampments of the unhoused. Open-air drug dealing is common. Comedian Dave Chappelle once joked about the neighborhood saying, “I’ve never seen crack smoked so casually before.” The jokes betray the gravity of the living conditions in the Tenderloin where over 40% of the city’s overdoses occur within the one-quarter square mile neighborhood.
The Tenderloin is also a diverse neighborhood that includes immigrant and elderly populations who are among the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. In this context we meet a resident of 111 Taylor, a for-profit halfway house for individuals released from prison. His face is digitally obscured to protect his identity as he shoots surreptitious video footage documenting a chilling series of events that led to a COVID-19 outbreak among residents in the building.
The first-person video extrapolates the systemic challenges faced in prison populations who are disproportionately affected by the virus. One in five inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, outpacing the rates for the general population. “As prisons have proved hotspots of COVID-19, the pandemic has posed new challenges for the people who leave them and the communities they re-enter,” reports the Charlotte Observer. “While some states have accelerated the release of prisoners to stem contagion, relatively few systematically test or quarantine people before they leave.”
As the video dramatically unfolds, we see lax social distancing and masking practices that are exacerbated by overcrowded living conditions. We see how this protracted pandemic forces our most vulnerable populations into extremely difficult decisions: in this case, a man with co-morbidities must decide if he will compromise his parole by leaving the halfway house, or endanger his own life by remaining at 111 Taylor.
“Some of these themes are buried in niche news, and that’s why we’re making Defender,” said Gorjestani. “The communities that the public defender serves are not participating or are not invited to participate in the storytelling about the work that they do,” he continued. “The language and the way these things are talked about gets stuck in a very journalistic tone but we are missing a whole generation. This is going to have a different tone — it’s being made in a language that’s born out of the communities that the office represents.”
Defender is presented as a digital magazine that includes film, photo essays, op-eds, and audio stories. One film titled Forty Four Years Later documents the homecoming of Paul Redd who spent over 30 years of his 44-year incarceration in solitary confinement. In 2013, Redd led a hunger strike at Pelican Bay which ultimately helped bring reforms to solitary confinement practices in California. Redd was also instrumental in leading anti-violence education efforts and terminal illness support groups. Despite his activism and advocacy work, according to Public Defender Danielle Harris, Redd was denied parole 13 times.
As Harris describes in a written statement on the Defender site, “This supposed ‘justice’ delivered Paul into the belly of the carceral punishment system where he remained trapped for the next 44 years, enduring some of the most brutal conditions in modern prison history.” Harris defended Redd in a resentencing case that led to his release in 2020. Redd now lives in Oakland where he continues advocating for resentencing awareness and support services for the formerly incarcerated.
Another film originally created by Even/Odd, titled Happy Birthday Mario Woods, is an emotionally resonant look at a family dealing with the aftermath of their loved one’s death at the hands of police. The piece asks an important question: What happens to families after the cameras are gone and the social media awareness wanes?
San Francisco has long traded on an air of liberalism, yet it also has one of the highest levels of income inequity in the country. “We have a city where a lot of people moved here recently, I think a lot of people feel entitled to the prosperity that they ‘earned’, and I think that our progressive base here has forgotten about the central piece of class struggle that I think is a pillar to any progressive ideology,” said Gorjestani. Defender challenges viewers to build a bridge to the communities right in their own backyard, and creates a new dialogue around justice reform that’s not only more inclusive but also invites more people to hold themselves accountable.