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Documentary ‘Defender’ Focuses on Jeff Adachi

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi in a scene from “Defender.”

SAN FRANCISCO — AAMM Productions and SFFILM announce the world premiere of “Defender” (2017, 75 minutes), a new documentary film by Jim Choi and Jeff Adachi, on Saturday, April 15, at 3 p.m. at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St. (at Market) in San Francisco, as part of the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival.

This insightful documentary focuses on San Francisco Public Defender Adachi as he and his team take on the high-profile case of 22-year-old Michael Smith, who pleads not guilty after he is charged with nine counts of resisting arrest. Pulled off a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train along with his girlfriend, Smith is wrestled to the ground, the arrest captured on the attending officers’ body cameras.

Adachi employs the images from the cameras to advance the case that Smith’s arrest and the rough treatment he received on the BART platform were racially motivated. Moreover, he avers in the documentary, his client’s odyssey in the criminal justice system was evidence of black-crime bias in ostensibly liberal San Francisco.

But more than just an exposé of racism, “Defender” also shines a light on Adachi and his long career. Shown on the job — getting Smith to the courtroom, consulting with colleagues on the case, and discussing strategy and outcomes — and in private, early-morning moments at the gym where he can’t quite get away from work, running into an old client as he works out, Adachi is low-key and affable.

But percolating beneath that placid surface is a lifelong passion for social justice, ignited when he was a small boy learning that his family was among those interned during World War II and finding its purpose in his long service with the Public Defender’s Office.

This is a free community screening and shows with “The Boombox Collection: Zion I” (Mohammad Gorjestani, USA, 2016, 10 minutes), a portrait of Stephen Gaines, aka Zumbi, the frontman of Oakland hip-hop duo Zion I.

Adachi, Choi and producer Corey Tong are expected to attend.

San Francisco voters elected Adachi public defender in 2001. Before that, he served in the office as deputy public defender (1986-1998) and chief attorney (1998-2001). He and his colleagues were previously profiled in the PBS documentary “Presumed Guilty: Tales of the Public Defenders” (2002). Adachi is also a documentary filmmaker whose work includes “The Slanted Screen” (2006), “You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story” (2009), and “America Needs a Racial Facial” (2016).

An alumnus of the Rhode Island School of Design, Choi serves as cinematographer on “Defender” as well as co-director. Among Choi’s other films are “Don’t Lose Your Soul” (2017), “Changing Seasons” (2015), and “The People’s Hospital” (2015). He served as director of photography on “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings” (2012). He earned an Emmy nomination for his cinematography on “Lost and Found: Legacy of USS Lagarto” (2009).

For more information on the festival, which runs from April 5 to 19, visit

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