The documentary The Central Park Five—which follows the story of the young men who were convicted of rape in the infamous 1989 Central Park Jogger case but later cleared—was released in November, but an accompanying legal issue has just been resolved.
Yesterday, a District Court judge in New York City blocked the city’s quest to subpoena unused footage that the filmmakers—producer-directors Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon—gathered during production. The footage would have been used by the city lawyers in lengthy federal suit brought by the wrongfully convicted defendants. Editing by the filmmakers had made the subjects more sympathetic, the lawyers argued, and those outtakes might tell the a different story.
The matter of the subpoena partially hinged on whether The Central Park Five was a piece of objective journalism—or an argument on behalf of the men involved. According to the New York Times, the city had argued that Five was analogous to the 2009 film Crude, which had been made specifically to argue an anti-oil stance and was subject to subpoenas during a suit between an oil company and the persons who had commissioned the film. However, it was decided that the two films were not similar when it came to the crucial matter of whether the filmmakers were independent from outside influence. Thus, The Central Park Five was protected by the privileges given to journalists under New York law. Having a point of view, the judge said, was not the same as being a biased advocate:
…consistency of point of view does not show a lack of independence where, for example, a filmmaker has editorial and financial independence over the newsgathering process… Indeed, it seems likely that a filmmaker would have a point of view going into a project. Thus, even assuming that the relationship Defendants cite between the filmmakers and Plaintiffs somehow demonstrates that the filmmakers had a point of view in favor of the Plaintiffs’ case before producing the Film, this fact, standing alone, does not resolve the question of whether the actual newsgathering process in the making of the Film remained independent.
In addition, the city failed to prove that the footage would be the only way they could possibly learn the facts of the case.
The full decision can be read over at The Hollywood Reporter.