By Carey London
Inspired by a deep curiosity and empathy for the human experience, director Dawn Porter specializes in unfiltered storytelling through documentary films.
“I think you have to take your ego out of the storytelling and be open to letting the story reveal itself. It’s not the story I want to tell, it’s what the story is,” she said in a recent phone interview.
The award-winning documentary filmmaker often spotlights social policy and civil rights in her movies, and her commitment to sharing the experiences of people impacted by these issues has brought her national acclaim.
To honor her commitment to shining a light on so many important issues in her work, Porter will be this year’s recipient of the Pennebaker Career Achievement Award at the 14th annual Hamptons Doc Fest, which runs in Sag Harbor from December 3-10. This is the festival’s highest distinction, given to documentary filmmakers who have made important and lasting contributions to the world of nonfiction film. The award, which will be presented to Porter at Sag Harbor Cinema on Saturday, December 4, is named for the late Sag Harbor resident and documentary filmmaking giant D.A. Pennebaker.
“It is thrilling, so meaningful, so rewarding and it kind of keeps you going,” said Porter. “It reminds me of why I got into this in the first place. I feel a lot of pride at being in such company.”
Still, being among filmmaking heavyweights took time, and her journey began in an entirely different career, as a litigation attorney at a Washington, D.C., law firm. As it turns out, there are unique overlaps between litigators and filmmakers — from making difficult topics relatable to patiently poring over often-dry material. And, “When you take depositions, what you’re supposed to do is listen,” she said, “so it’s very much like doing a good interview, it’s more about listening to the answers then asking the questions.”
That experience laid the groundwork for her budding interest in journalism and eventually filmmaking.
After five years in Washington, D.C., she followed one of the firm’s partners to ABC News in New York City.
“I wanted to think outside the box,” she said. “I could see a very nice life but a very traditional life, and I wanted to take some risks.”
She joined the network as an in-house attorney before being made director of news standards and practices.
“I learned the process of storytelling and taking something incomprehensible and making it understandable,” Porter explained.
Later, she moved from ABC to A&E Television Network to become the vice president of standards and practices, eventually realizing she wanted more freedom to select the stories she wanted to tell. This motivated her to branch out into film.
Her immersion into documentary filmmaking began as an executive producer for several films, but her directorial debut was in 2013 with “Gideon’s Army.” This film followed three black public defenders who devoted their lives to fighting a broken criminal justice system in the American deep south. It won the award for best editing at Sundance Film Festival, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and an Emmy, and is part of the U.S. Department of State’s American Film Showcase.
Meeting those public defenders was a turning point for Porter. “I didn’t know about criminal law, but I knew the pressure of holding somebody’s life in your hands,” she said, reflecting back. She was compelled to tell their story. Putting one foot in front of the other, Porter continued making films that raised public awareness and ultimately secured her position as a respected documentarian.
Her 2016 film “Trapped” explored the laws regulating abortion clinics in the South and their impact on the physicians, the people running the clinics, and the women seeking help, among others. It won the special jury social-impact prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and a Peabody among other awards.
In 2020, she directed two award-winning documentaries: “The Way I See It,” which looked at the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama from the lens of White House photographer Pete Souza; and “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” the story of the late congressman’s pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement.
Meanwhile, this year she was director and executive producer of the mental health documentary series “The Me You Can’t See,” working alongside Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry. She also directed “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer’’ for the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre of 1921, which targeted Black residents of the city. In addition, she made a short, “Bree Wayy: Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” depicting how artists use their mediums to heal from the loss and pay tribute to the life of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT who was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020.
“A lot of these stories are really hard. It’s hard to see people suffer,” she said. “Every person you interview, every person you spend time with, that becomes part of your life.”
But amplifying the unheard or marginalized voices of those impacted by government policy and social action is what keeps her going.
“What I really like the most is letting people experience something they’ve never thought of before — What is it like to be in jail? What is it like to go on trial? What is it like to be responsible for someone else’s life?”
And while she does not see her filmmaking as a form of activism, she is committed to highlighting the work of others.
“I am not an activist. And I say that because I have so much respect for the people that are. I interact with a topic for maybe two to three years, but for most of the activists, it’s their whole life,” said Porter. “They’re not getting audiences clapping, they’re not getting ratings. I feel like I’m helping to show what the activists are dealing with.”
The Hamptons Doc Fest presents Dawn Porter with the Pennebaker Career Achievement Award at 9 p.m. on Saturday, December 4, at Sag Harbor Cinema, 90 Main Street. Following her acceptance speech and an interview with documentary filmmaker Julie Anderson, there will be a screening of “Bree Wayy: Promise, Witness, Remembrance” and an excerpt from her upcoming film “Cirque du Soleil,” about the iconic circus’s attempts to return to the stage after the COVID-19 crisis. Additionally, “Trapped” will be screened as part of Hamptons Doc Fest on Tuesday, December 7, at 2:30 p.m. at Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. For tickets, visit hamptonsdocfest.com.