James Cooper is one of those globetrotting guys who has more stamps in his passport than you do. A Cambridge-educated Canadian who now teaches law at California Western School of Law in San Diego, Cooper spends much of his time organizing media-related projects in Latin America, where he teaches people how to use everything from documentary films and reality TV shows, to public service announcements and animated work, to promote concepts related to the rule of law. Cooper’s group, which he runs from his law school perch and an office in Santiago, Chile, is called Proyecto Acceso. He co-founded it in 1998 with a Laura Safer Espinoza, a judge in the Bronx Criminal Court in New York City. Today, the organization works with a number of judges and lawyers—not to mention law students, filmmakers, social activists, and whomever else they can find to partner with—in countries throughtout Latin America. (They also do projects in the U.S. and Canada.) The group’s films tackle subjects as various as trade policy, drug interdiction, and immigration law. Cooper recently spoke with The Independent’s Mike Hofman about his work.
You run a bunch of projects under the umbrella of Proyecto Acceso. What is your group’s mission, and how do the various projects fit into it?
There are a number of programs under the banner Proyecto Acceso, which is an acronym. It stands for Abogados Creativos Colaborando Para Encontrar Soluciones Optimas, which means Creative Lawyers Collaborating to Find Optimal Solutions. The organization includes our film, video, and web production wing, which is called Acceso Vision. The objective of Acceso is to utilize popular culture to promote rule of law initiatives throughout the Americas, from Canada to Argentina and everywhere in between. We have a number of different programs—Acceso Kids, Acceso Indigena for indigenous peoples, even Acceso Collection, a fashion line. Though we have all these different methods, it is always with the same objective: the rule of law is good for everyone whether it is a multinational corporation, a trade union, a student, a woman, an indigenous person or a holder of intellectual property rights. Acceso Vision archives and disseminates those critical moments of justice that help build confidence in the judicial sector.
Your films and videos sometimes challenge the government and entrenched interests, and sometimes in societies that are not so friendly to challenges of this kind. My understanding is that you have had some run ins with the law. Tell me about them.
I have had some interesting experiences in several countries. I used to teach a class in Tijuana, Mexico, and would drive down from San Diego on a weekly basis. Each time, I was stopped for “Driving While Gringo”—that is to say, driving with California license plates. Law enforcement officials in some places don’t like our work because we expose corruption. Yet our training wing, Acceso Capacitacion, has actually trained thousands of judges, police officers, prosecutors and public defenders all around Latin America, with funding from the U.S., German, Chilean, and Bolivian governments, among others. The thing about judiciaries and the legal sector in some countries is that they have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. That’s why we see law reform as a full contact sport. I wear knee pads and a protective cup sometimes.
You teach filmmaking skills to young people so that they can further their social activism. Are young people in most Latin American countries as media savvy as the typical American college student, or more so, or less so, and how does that affect your work?
It all depends on what country and the kinds of audiences with whom we have worked. I have met some of the most savvy people who are shoe shiners on the streets of La Paz, Bolivia. They have survival skills far beyond anything I have seen developed in the tiny neighborhoods in Southern California. We taught some filmmaking skills to street kids in Santiago de Chile who did some kick ass work. I get inspired each and every time I am lucky enough to work with young people—no matter from where they come. My fellow Acceso Team members do amazing work in the barrios and in the boardrooms around Central and South America, whether they are teaching media skills to a prosecutor in a newly created Attorney General’s office or teaching gang members how to work a video camera.
Were you a filmmaker who became a social activist or an activist who dabbled in film? How did you come to bring these two passions together?
I used to be a lawyer who wanted to be an artist, but then I went to therapy. Now I am an artist whose medium is the rule of law. That sounds so pretentious, I want to puke. I made a deal with my mother that if I finished law school, wrote the bar examination, and became a barrister, I could do what I wanted after. So I dabbled a bit. I wrote and produced some films for TV networks in the UK, I was a photographer for Marie Claire magazine in three countries, and I wrote opinion pieces about international law and relations for some newspapers. I am now a law professor and an assistant dean at an ABA-accredited law school in San Diego, and I am lucky enough to find grant money to do interesting projects, some of which involves the media to promote law reform.
Where does the money come from to make your films?
Some of it comes from philanthropic organizations, some of it from governments, and some of it from the money I should be saving for retirement.
How many media projects are you working on at a time, and how many people are you working with at a time?
We have a wonderful team all over the Americas—at any one time, our man in Bolivia, Yerko Ilijic, is filming Guaraní indigenous people recently liberated from indentured servitude. Meanwhile, our designer in Tijuana, Marcela Guadiana, is developing the visuals for the different projects, our composer Andrew Muroff is in Canada making the music to accompany the visuals, and our editor in Chile, Sebastian Vives, is piecing it all together. We have been working together since 2002 as Proyecto Acceso. The main themes are always law-related.
When you look at the videos, Yerko Ilijic seems like the star of the Proyecto Acceso show. How did you find him, and what can you tell me about him? What is he working on now?
Yerko Ilijic spoke fluent English because he grew up watching Friends. He had never been to the U.S. until we got him here in 2003 to do some TV work and give a few presentations about law and development. I met him when he ran for La Paz’s municipal government and became a media darling back home. He ended up working for the German government in Chile’s Ministry of Justice and we did a few projects together on legal reform which we filmed. He is working right now for a Senator in Bolivia on a project to create a Pan Amazonian Congress, which is a body for all countries which occupy parts of the Amazon. He is organizing an Acceso workshop in November about intellectual property rights for law enforcement officials and another training session for shoe shiners in Plaza San Francisco in La Paz, Bolivia. Yerko speaks fluent German too. His Aymara is not too bad either. I don’t think he speaks Quechua though. That’s the indigenous language common to Ecuador and Peru. Friends has not been translated into Quechua, I suppose.
How do you distribute your work primarily? And where do you distribute it? How many copies of the DVDs are out there, for example?
It depends on the project. If we get a commission from the U.S. or German governments, it could be for a public service announcement about human rights or piracy for TV or theatre previews. Sometimes we get our work on public TV in the U.S. Our film Full Metal Justice and Globalization: The Reality Show played in regular rotation over a year on San Diego’s Channel 16 ITV, run by the San Diego County Board of Education. There are conceivably thousands of DVDs of our work out there, mostly pirated versions I am told. That should teach me to do business in Paraguay. Last year I gave some of our work to a visiting delegation at our law school from China, and told them I expected to see the work out there on the streets around Asia.
I see on your website that you are looking for interns in Chile. What do you look for in an intern? What kinds of skills? Or is it more about passion and intellectual curiosity? Or is it more about being intrepid? Or more about speaking English and Spanish well?
To be an intern (and we have six now working in Chile), you have to be a law student, have a good sense of humor, a good grade point average, speak Spanish, and sign a big waiver. Did I mention the waiver?
What’s next from your group?
We are thinking of how to raise some money to keep this project going. We have a plan to drive a truck from Fox News with a satellite link, editing equipment, and great mini-bar to Bolivia and donate the monster to TV Congreso, Bolivia’s C-SPAN. We would like to get our own TV show that features former presidents of Latin American countries doing normal things—like golfing with Carlos Menem, rose-cutting with former Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori, and bowling with Adala Bucaram. I like the idea of doing it like Sanford and Son but all the characters would be wearing Panama Hats and smoking Cohibas. We’ve had some trouble selling that idea but I am still trying. When we started training lawyers in oral advocacy I never thought that we would branch out into public education. It has been a wonderful decade doing this work and we are all a bit tired. Also, I was hoping to learn the subjunctive tense in Spanish sometime.
For you, what for you is the hardest part of filmmaking? What is the hardest creative struggle you have? What is the mundane aspect of filmmaking on which you routinely stumble?
I have a difficult time the first day or two of editing. The creative process is sometimes a bit of a struggle for us all. Sometimes there is too much time between when we have shot something and when we edit it together. I used to be very critical of directors, musicians and others who took what seemed like a long time to get a project completed. Now I understand that things can take years, particularly when one is operating on a shoe-string budget. The mundane part of this work comes with the filling out of forms for taxes, customs, and the like. I suppose as a lawyer I should be good at paperwork, but I think I missed that class at law school.
For more information, visit www.proyectoacceso.com