Documentary

Sundance ’20: “The Fight” co-directors on gaining access into the ACLU

On a bitterly cold night in late January 2017, Weiner director Elyse Steinberg found herself surrounded by protesters on the federal courthouse steps in Brooklyn, New York. It was seven days after ...
January 23, 2020

On a bitterly cold night in late January 2017, Weiner director Elyse Steinberg found herself surrounded by protesters on the federal courthouse steps in Brooklyn, New York. It was seven days after President Donald Trump enacted Executive Order 13769, frequently referred to as a “Muslim ban.”

The 41-year-old filmmaker says she was raised with a “belief in the power of law to protect basic freedoms” and came to understand at a young age how quickly a country can turn on its own citizens. Steinberg’s mother was herself inspired to become a litigator defending the rights of immigrants after listening to stories of her own mother’s (Steinberg’s grandmother) escape from Nazi Germany.

So when the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project, emerged from the Brooklyn courthouse that January night where he was arguing for an emergency stay of Trump’s order, Steinberg was drawn immediately to spotlighting the cause.

The Fight, holding its world premiere in the U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance, is the culmination of three years of hard work from Steinberg and her co-directors Josh Kriegman (Weiner) and Eli Despres. The 96-minute film offers an in-depth look at how civil liberties battles are fought and the ACLU lawyers on the front lines of an increasingly polarized legal landscape.

Featured throughout the film are four cases: a mother separated from her young child; a transgendered soldier threatened with the loss of his livelihood; alleged attempted suppression of voters rights; and a battle over a woman’s right to an abortion.

The Fight was filmed with crews in multiple locations across Baltimore, San Diego, Washington DC and Tijuana, Mexico, and encompassed more than 400 recorded hours of footage over a three-year filming period.

It was produced by Steinberg, Kriegman, Despres, Maya Seidler, Peggy Drexler and Kerry Washington, with Sean McGing as co-producer. Executive producers are Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Florence Sloan, Harry Sloan, Pilar Savone and Maria Zuckerman.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you gain access for this doc?

Josh Kriegman: We went to the ACLU and presented them with our vision of the film, saying we’re verité documentary filmmakers and what we want is total access. They heard that vision and they said they really loved it and our enthusiasm, but there was no way it would ever, ever happen. So naturally hearing that we thought ‘Okay, we can make this work.’

Ultimately, it took a lot of conversations and helping them understand our vision. At the end of the day they agreed to do it, not only because they trusted us, but because they really believed that despite the risks of allowing cameras into the room, this is a historical and unprecedented moment that they really believed needed to be documented.

What types of production challenges did you encounter on the project?

Elyse Steinberg: One of the biggest challenges was trying to keep up with the fast pace nature of these lawyers in the fight. We’d get a tweet in the middle of dinner that Trump wanted to issue some new policy and we would know immediately that our lawyers were springing into action. We had to grab our cameras and go. We had to be nimble and flexible and be with our lawyers as they were fighting these major legal battles.

The second [challenge] was the editing. These cases are complicated and we had to find a way to weave them all together. On both fronts it was a big undertaking but it was also a very exciting challenge.

Eli Despres: The big challenge with verité is you want to blend in so that your subjects are relaxed and comfortable and can get on with their work. It helps that our team has a fair amount of experience with fly-on-the-wall but we keep a small footprint. Our shooters and in-field producers have a good bedside manner.

Can you tell me about any challenges you had in financing this film?

JK: You could probably tell from the scope of the project, the scale of production and having it go on for a couple of years, it was certainly a challenge to find the resources that we needed to keep it going. We were fortunate enough to be able to participate in Sundance’s Catalyst program, which was extremely beneficial to us in terms of connecting us to funders who were inspired by what we were working on.

ES: We came to Catalyst early in the film, at the beginning of production, and that was extraordinarily helpful in finding supporters and funders.

How did your experience with Weiner inform your work with The Fight?

JK: Both films represent the style of filmmaking that we love and we’re committed to. The on-the-ground, verité sensibility is really the type of filmmaking that excites us. Finding ways to embed and become, in a sense, fixtures of these people’s lives. We were there throughout everything, and ultimately over time people become comfortable with the fact that you’re there and that’s how you’re able to be there for the important moments.

ED: I’d also say that working on Weiner together, we fell in love with the collaboration, the partnership. The three of us, the way we put films together has always felt very easy and natural. It’s just been a tremendously enriching partnership and collaboration along the way.

What advice would you give to emerging docmakers looking to pursue their passion projects? 

ED: Finding stories that have some sort of tension that appeals to you is the most important thing. Making movies that are stories and not essays, making movies that are conflicts and not opinions.

JK: The one quality that often comes to mind is perseverance. There’s a degree to which you have to keep going with these projects. One of the things that’s very difficult about verité filmmaking is that you log a lot of hours. If you want to be there for the moments that really matter and the moments that really make these films feel special, you have to be there for all the other moments too. That really challenges people’s capacity to persevere, especially when there’s not much in the way of resources to keep you going.

  • The Fight premieres at The MARC Theatre in Park City, Utah on Jan. 24 at 11:30 a.m. MT. 
About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.