Interview: Eli Despres on Doing Justice to “The Fight”

At one point in “The Fight,” ACLU attorneys Brigitte Amiri, Joshua Block, Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho and Chase Strangio can be seen indulging the filmmakers by pulling out a file of the various hate mail they’ve received over the years for defending the tenets of the Constitution, finding it both horrific and hilarious.

“I think one of our attorneys just mentioned in passing the kind of letters that came in and we asked to see what they had gotten,” recalls Eli Despres, of one of the film’s more lighthearted scenes. “That just led us to go around the horn with everybody and it’s a scene that I love because it’s both funny and emotionally painful at the same time and you’re really living in the hearts of the subjects.”

Given the massive stakes involved in the cases that the American Civil Liberties Union takes on, such moments of levity are hard to come by, but they have become a key to what makes Despres’ collaborations with co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, with whom he previously worked on “Weiner” (as an editor), so powerful. Like their last collaboration focusing on the disgraced New York politician Anthony Weiner as someone who couldn’t get out of his own way in his bid to become the mayor of New York, “The Fight” shows that despite how much regarding government seems predetermined and mechanical, it still remains dependent on the people involved and quirks of the system, though that’s inspiring when you see the quintet of fearless lawyers that the film follows, welcoming the challenge of combatting the flagrant attacks on the rights of women, immigrants, and the transgender community in court after the current administration took office in 2016.

Despres, Kriegman and Steinberg treat their subjects with the weight they deserve as the lives of thousands, if not millions, hang in the balance with every case the ACLU takes on, but leaves the room to show how personal the work is to Amiri, Block, Gelernt, Ho and Strangio and how their advocacy for those often least able to afford it is driven by their force of personality and ingenuity. It’s a feeling the filmmakers could likely relate to in their work with each other towards the greater good, creating a portrait of the lawyers every bit as dynamic and compelling as the cases that they argue. With the film arriving in virtual cinemas this week, Despres shared how the film, shot over three years, came together, offering a unique glimpse into the generally private legal organization and how as filmmakers they rose to their own challenge to do justice to subjects who have sacrificed so much to seek it for all.

How did this come about? I heard Elyse came running into the office after shooting at the Brooklyn Courthouse when Lee Gelernt successfully argued against the legality of the ban on Muslims from entering the U.S. just after Trump’s inauguration.

It really was. Elyse was at that protest and when she saw Lee [Gelernt] come out of the courtroom into this chanting crowd, I think it was really the fact that she saw a man that had been working in obscurity doing the most important work you can imagine suddenly cast into the public eye. There was a real urgency she was feeling that this is a story we should tell and these were the people that were our way into this world, so she was fired up and kicked down the door of our office and literally wiped our white board clean of all of our other film ideas and said, “The Fight is the movie we’re doing.” Josh [Kriegman] and I were immediately onboard. It seemed like a no-brainer to us.

Did the notion of following a specific set of cases come immediately?

We’re verite filmmakers, so we don’t do movies with a lot of experts and talking heads explaining stuff. We’re always interested in coming in through the characters, so we knew we wanted to be on the ground with the people who are actually doing the work and we were interested in the central conflicts of American life — so reproductive rights, immigrant rights, voting rights and LGBT rights. But we had some nervousness that maybe a movie about lawyers, [that] all of our characters were going to be boring and buttoned up [with] Brooks Brothers suits. What was great about the ACLU, [which] Dale, at one point in the movie, [describes], “There’s more tattoos and piercings at the ACLU than the Department of Justice” and these subjects have this visceral spark that you’re looking for. They’re interesting characters and they’re traveling and they’re doing unbelievably difficult work at the highest, highest levels with staggering stakes for us all. I think the happiest surprise of this movie was how the movie was turning into an action film with characters who just light up the screen.

From “Weiner” on, something that has really shined through is how you create the space throughout to bring out the humanity of your subjects, often through how they interact at work or handle interpersonal relations. Are you conscious of that in filming?

Well, I live for those human moments where Chase [Strangio] is wrangling his kid and trying to recruit clients at the same time or Lee is trying to figure out how a decision has gone down and he can’t charge his cell phone – so I hope the audience love that as much as I do because it helps connect me to the characters. It is not that interesting for me to watch superheroes who are invulnerable just mow down their enemies. I am deeply flawed as an individual, and I think most of us feel that way, so when I see our characters struggling in these human ways, it makes me feel much more connected to the work and to the scale of the struggle that they’re facing.

And it’s a real tribute to Elyse in particular, her skills as a producer, and our team, which includes co-producers Maya Seidler and Sean McGing, how well they integrate themselves into the attorneys’ lives and become a seamless background presence. Just showing up and building that trust with the attorneys, I think they came to know us and our team very personally. It’s an unbelievable number of hours that we logged on the road with these lawyers over years, so there’s a personal relationship that shows itself to the extent that these lawyers allowed themselves to be themselves onscreen.

One of the things I thought was so impressive was protecting anonymity of the subjects while providing the proper context for the cases. Does that present a challenge in the editing?

Absolutely. And the ACLU was understandably very nervous in allowing us access, especially the kind of access that we require, which is complete editorial control and being basically everywhere. They insisted obviously that attorney/client privilege was sacrosanct and we couldn’t do anything to jeopardize that and that includes the identity, of course, of Jane Doe, which was very important. Part of the trust building was being very, very careful to be respectful of their clients, who are also heroic in putting themselves out there so the impact litigation could be done in their names and real change could happen.

Is it true you willed this stirring score from Gustavo Santollala into being from using his music for temp score?

I have loved Gustavo’s music for years and I think I’ve temped with it on a couple films and toyed with the idea of giving him a call, never dreaming that he’d be willing to lend his talents to a little documentary. But what a gift. He’s an extraordinary talent as well as his collaborator Juan Luqui — they worked together on this score and it was just a lovely, lovely working relationship. They tend to turn in tracks that are genius and wonderfully evocative and they have a soul that a lot of movies don’t have while maintaining a unique voice that you’ve got to have on every movie.

The film seems particularly relevant to the times we’re in. What’s it like to bring it into the world?

I feel like we’re just at the cusp of introducing it into the world, but I’m really eager — and we all are — to have this be part of the national conversation because it’s an election year. We’re making decisions right now in the country of what kind of country we’re going to be, and I’m hopeful that we’re living in a moment of change, so all I can ask is to be relevant in that conversation and contribute somehow. How does it feel to bringing it into the world right now? It’s scary and exciting and good.

“The Fight” will be available on July 31st digital and on demand. A full list of where you can watch it is here and you can support your local arthouse by watching it at a virtual cinema where proceeds will be split with the theater.

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