Tart-Talking Law Women Dispense Justice in Family-Court Doc

The law is natural theater. Rarely, though, does it provide the sort of inspirational political drama found in Kim Longinotto's much praised documentary Sisters in Law. Indeed, the movie might almost be a family-court western in which a pair of tart-talking gunslingers—state prosecutor Vera Ngassa and judge Beatrice Ntuba—bring justice to the oppressed women and children of Kumba Town, Cameroon.

Sisters in Law focuses on three cases. One is spousal abuse—a crime that has never been successfully prosecuted in Kumba. The other two cases are child abuse, one involving rape. Unfolding in chambers as well as in the courtroom, the movie is an absorbing series of one-on-ones. Local courtroom protocol is based on the British system; the law itself appears to be a complicated combination of tribal tradition, Muslim sharia, and government statutes. The style, however, is nothing if not folksy. Neither judge nor prosecutor willingly suffers fools; both are formidably tenacious and often quite funny. ("That's what you men do—you just have children all over the place," Judge Ntuba interrupts one long-winded witness.)

Robed warriors: Ngassa and Ntuba
photo: Women Make Movies
Robed warriors: Ngassa and Ntuba

Longinotto is her own director of photography. Her fly-on-the-wall camera recalls Frederick Wiseman's, but her emphasis is less on the system than its personalities. Sisters in Law has been edited with an eye for comic relief, as when a chucklehead defense lawyer lamely protests that his client was forced to act lest his wife become "ungovernable." But like the cases it presents, the movie is mainly predicated on the victims' testimony. Clear-cut issues and upbeat closer notwithstanding, Sisters in Law lacks a narrative arc—it's an immersion in applied feminism in which each case not only has political implications but a positive denouement.

 
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