How One Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Case Became Ben Proudfoot’s Documentary Short ‘Forgiving Johnny’

Gordon Proudfoot was both a lawyer and a disc jockey. Before the internet provided quick answers to almost any kinds of questions, Gordon ran an “dial-a-law” call-in tape service where listeners could call him with legal queries about car accidents or whatever trouble they may have gotten.

So, when Gordon died in May 2020, his filmmaker son Ben Proudfoot decided to make a film that honored his dad’s philanthropy and dedication to serving the public.

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Johnny Reyes
Johnny Reyes

Proudfoot’s 2023 short documentary “Forgiving Johnny” follows Los Angeles County public defender Noah Cox as he seeks forgiveness from the justice system on behalf of his disabled client Johnny Reyes, who is facing 20 years in prison, while simultaneously embarking on journey of forgiveness from a bygone classmate.

“I saw that there was this confluence of the California justice system, attempting to be more forgiving to developmentally disabled clients who need who need the support and help,” Proudfoot told Variety. “The miracle of the internet and all the technology that we have at hand every day is finally reaching the most analog corners of the universe in the legal system.”

'Forgiving Johnny'
'Forgiving Johnny'

With the help of digital transformation company Publicis Sapient, the L.A. County Public Defender’s Office was able to digitize case files for quick and easy access. Proudfoot’s doc gives a glimpse of the previous analog system, with forklifts moving stacks of file boxes around a storage warehouse.

“When technology is enabling forgiveness, that’s an interesting story,” Proudfoot says. In addition to Cox’s input in the film, Proudfoot set out to include the voices of Johnny’s sister, Elda Torres, to share more about Johnny’s history of fetal alcohol syndrome and this on-going case following his 2020 arrest.

“It’s an extremely vulnerable and raw film because of Elda and Noah’s openness and honesty,” Proudfoot says. Like he previously did with 2021’s “The Queen of Basketball” (which won the Oscar for documentary short film) Proudfoot opted for the short film format to relay information about these changes in the legal system. While he’d love to eventually make a feature-length film, he feels that more succinct media does a better job of reaching the fleeting attention spans of today’s audiences.

“When it comes down to its my job in this world is to find incredible stories, craft them into compelling cinema and deliver them to as many people as humanly possible,” he says.

“Nowhere in there does it say it has to be two hours long and smell like popcorn in the room. I’m trying to leverage the unthinkable power of the internet and marry that with the best craft that I can as a filmmaker,” he says.

“Forgiving Johnny” is one of three short films in Proudfoot and Publicis Sapient’s Impact Films series which launched last year. The film previously screened at L.A. Shorts and Hollyshorts and is slated for the San Diego Film Festival in October. Time Magazine is showcasing “Forgiving Johnny” on its digital platforms.

(Pictured above: L.A. County public defender Noah Cox)

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