Faith: A San Francisco documentary filmmaker — and former New Jersey mom — reflects on her meteoric success, making movies in the time of COVID-19, and collaborating with Oprah and Prince Harry.
In 2008, Dawn Porter reached a turning point in her career. She was living in the New York area and working as a vice president of standards and practices at A&E Television Networks. She loved the job, which involved ethics and programming policies, and had worked hard to get there, graduating from Georgetown Law School years before. But she had two young sons at home, and her work was increasingly focused on reality TV, which didn’t interest her.
Porter also kept thinking about a friend she had lost to ovarian cancer a decade before. “My friend was only 37,” says Porter, “and I remember thinking, ‘You only have one life. You really should be 100 percent in whatever you’re doing.’”
Porter’s problem: She wasn’t 100 percent into her work. She yearned to head more in the direction of her passions, social justice and in-depth storytelling. So she asked A&E if she could work part time, three days a week. She then founded her own production company, Trilogy Films, and spent the other two days developing show ideas.
Producing documentary films wasn’t such a reach. Porter had left a law firm and gone to work as an attorney for ABC News and A&E after her friend died, so she was steeped in journalism. And she had loved making films as a child. Her father, a photographer, kept a studio in New York City, where Porter and her sister used to shoot movies for fun. “Some people go fishing as kids,” she says. “We made Super 8 movies.”
But Porter struggled to get her first break as a professional filmmaker until another mother she knew at their community pool in New Jersey — a woman who worked at the Food Network — asked her to produce a biography of New York chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli. After that, another “mommy friend” who worked at the Ford Foundation helped her get funding to direct her first documentary. The result was Gideon’s Army, which follows three public defenders in the South, highlighting their dedication and crushing workloads. The film won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Emmy after it aired on HBO.
Suddenly, Porter had found her “100 percent,” the thing into which she could throw all her energy. She’s been on a tear ever since, directing documentaries with big social impact. “She likes to develop characters and dig deep into the kind of morality and difficulties that people face in their personal lives,” says Bonni Cohen, a documentary filmmaker and co-director of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. “She tends to put a magnifying glass on real heroes working, whether they’re heroes in the legal system or abortion clinics.”
After moving to San Francisco in 2015 so that her husband could take a job in tech, Porter released her film Trapped, about the impact of anti-abortion laws on abortion providers in the South. The documentary won a 2016 Special Jury Prize for Social Impact Filmmaking at Sundance. Two years later, her riveting four-part documentary on Bobby Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy for President, debuted on Netflix.
This year, however, may be Porter’s most highly visible ever. Her documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble — about the civil rights activist and 17-term Georgia congressman — was set to premiere at the Tribeca Film festival in April and be released in theaters in May, but will now hit theaters this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The documentary will also air on CNN in September, the same month that Porter’s film about Pete Souza, Barack Obama’s White House photographer, will be released by Focus Features.
Then in December, Apple TV+ will air the six-part series on mental health that Porter is creating with executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry. As this story went to press, Porter was at her summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, remotely editing the series while sheltering in place with her family.
Porter loves working with Oprah and Prince Harry — who, she says, “are both really, really committed to this issue” — but she’s been just as moved by the number of people (including Lady Gaga) willing to speak about their struggles with anxiety, depression or bipolar disorders.
Their willingness may be partly due to the sensitivity of Porter’s storytelling. That was evident in Gideon’s Army, a film she worked on for three-and-a-half years. As she interacted with public defenders and their clients, many of whom faced felony charges, she worked hard to cultivate trust. “I haven’t been to jail. I don’t have that experience,” she says. “But I think the subjects could relate to me. I think they felt safe and they knew I wasn’t going to abuse their trust.”
Jon Shenk, who co-directed An Inconvenient Sequel with Cohen, his wife, says, “Dawn really aims to connect with people on a personal level and you feel that in her films. She’s a very warm, engaging person, and you can see that on the screen. You feel that warmth come across.”
If anything, her work has only made her more compassionate. “Before Gideon’s Army, I was basically a suburban mom in New Jersey, worried about how I was going to get my kitchen renovated,” Porter says, “and I went out in the world and saw what so many people are experiencing. I can 100 percent say it changed my life.”
Her documentaries have also affected policies and conversation around the country. When former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a $6.7 million funding package to train and support public defenders in 2013, he cited Gideon’s Army as a motivator. And Porter’s film Trapped was screened in all 50 states, inspiring John Oliver to dedicate an episode of Last Week Tonight to abortion rights.
John Lewis: Good Trouble is likely to do the same, highlighting civil rights issues and the gradual dismantling of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for which Lewis nearly sacrificed his life. For the movie, Porter accompanied Lewis to Alabama (where he was born and where so many civil rights skirmishes took place), and interviewed his extended family and former classmates. What impressed her most about the congressman was his hope.
“He has seen so much and been through so much, and yet he is a joyful person,” says Porter. “He honestly believes in the goodness of the majority of people.”
Though Porter is juggling a number of projects now, she draws her energy from the work. “I just really, really love what I do,” she says. “I was a lawyer before I was a filmmaker. I wasn’t a miserable lawyer. I was perfectly fine. But this is different. This is what I’m supposed to do.”