Student News

UCLA Law Magazine | Fall 2020

Sundance Stars: Documentary Film Legal Clinic Shines in Park City

L to R: Documentary Film Legal Clinic students Graham Fenton ’20, Keegan Hawkins ’21 and Michelle Banayan ’21 take the stage at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Three students in UCLA Law’s Documentary Film Legal Clinic won a round of applause from movie industry insiders in a packed theater in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where they attended the premiere of The Cost of Silence, a documentary about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

During an onstage Q&A session that followed the screening in Park City, Utah, director Mark Manning pointed out the UCLA Law contingent — Michelle Banayan ’21, Graham Fenton ’20 and Keegan Hawkins ’21, plus clinic director Dale Cohen and associate director Daniel Mayeda ’82 — and thanked them for their legal support in making the film, including vetting its complex journalistic issues. Later, audience members circled the students to learn more about the innovative UCLA Law clinic that had brought them to the festival that, every January, is the center of the motion picture universe.

“For students to get the opportunity to see the film in front of an audience for the first time, and to recognize the impact that their work had, was pretty gratifying for all of us,” Cohen says. 

It was the latest success for the two-year-old clinic, which from its home in UCLA Law’s Ziffren Institute for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law partners with organizations including Film Independent, the International Documentary Association and the Sundance Institute to pair students with filmmakers who need legal help to bring their projects to the screen. While much of their work in the year-long clinic focuses on matters ranging from contract drafting to the fair use of copyrighted material, the students who went to Sundance got an uncommon view of the bigger picture: what happens to their projects after their work is complete.

During their three days at the festival, Banayan, Fenton and Hawkins attended the red-carpet premiere for The Cost of Silence; watched screenings of several other documentaries; soaked up the atmosphere of the massive entertainment industry summit; and met with a number of other filmmakers, analyzing the issues that their movies present and discussing whether the clinic should take them on as clients.

“I came to law school with the hopes of helping creatives in the film industry, and it’s amazing that the clinic offers exactly this experience and opportunity,” says Hawkins, who minored in film as a UCLA undergrad and plans to work in entertainment law.

Hawkins particularly values how the Sundance experience offered him and his classmates a peek into the interpersonal aspects of entertainment law and client relations. By meeting and working with filmmakers in their element, the students developed valuable relationships that will make them better advocates and lawyers for documentary filmmakers. By watching a wide variety of documentaries and meeting with potential clients, the students deepened their understanding of the issues that filmmakers regularly confront. And by being at the festival, they got a taste of working in the entertainment industry.

“At Sundance, I could really see how our work made a difference in the evolution of The Cost of Silence, and I felt proud to be a part of a piece with such an important message,” says Banayan, who was boosted by her background in journalism. Through the clinic, she first worked on the film as a summer intern last year, and she plans to practice media litigation.

“One of the special things about the clinic is not only do we get to work with filmmakers who are passionate about their projects but in working with documentarians, we deal with real stories,” she says. “And sharing these stories can inspire change and impact lives worldwide.”