Turner is editor of
Film-Forward.com where this review
no prologue or voice-over (avoiding obviously pontificating),
director Kim Longinotto throws the viewer, cinema-vérité
style, headlong into the office of state prosecutor Vera Ngassa,
a well-tailored matronly woman in her late thirties. She
is part of the Women Lawyers Association in the village of Kumba
Town, Cameroon, hence the title, which unfortunately sounds
like a pallid Touchstone comedy from the ‘80s.
camera follows three cases of domestic abuse, two involving
Muslim wives who have filed spousal abuse charges against their
husbands, and the other a diminutive and withdrawn six-year-old
runaway, Grace, who has multiple scars all over her body. Immediately
the viewer is part of the legal process, from evidence gathering
to trial. Other cases handled by Ngassa include a young woman
contesting a man who claims he bought her as his wife from her
father for 80 thousand francs and a pig, and a 10-year-old girl
charging a neighbour with rape.
the Oscar-nominated Darwin’s Nightmare, which,
granted, dealt with a whole horde of other issues (environmental
disaster and AIDS, to name just two) and in another part of
Africa (Tanzania), Longinotto’s film takes the viewer
in the trenches, directly focusing on problem solving, rather
than hovering above the issues as an observer, as in the unsparingly
bleak Nightmare. Although their subject matter is different,
both films deal with a changing Africa. As one plaintiff here
puts it, “This century is one where women’s rights
are respected.” By focusing on the enforcement of these
rights, Sisters in Law at least offers solutions and
like watching Judge Judy or Judge Hatchett, one of the documentary’s
highlights is the verbal smack down delivered by a stern maternal
figure. “Don’t you ‘sister’ me,”
scolds Ngassa to a sniveling woman charged in the beating of
Grace. But instead of a gavel, a court session begins with staccato
tapping at a window by the judge before entering. Other proceedings
will be just as intriguing: Judge Beatrice Ntuba reprimands
a defendant for gesticulating during an eyewitness’s testimony.
He must refrain from any sort of comment or else be sent outside
to be thrashed. Ngassa, representing the prepubescent rape victim
in court, emphasizes the nature of the crime by pointing out
the girl “has no boobies on her chest.” And apparently
the aunt charged in Grace’s beating doesn’t have
legal representation. That loophole will probably be just one
of many questions unexplained. Although there are few scenes
of her son visiting her at work, there’s no background
on Ngassa’s private or professional life, let alone on
the Republic of Cameroon, formed from the union of a British
and French Colony, with a population of roughly 40 percent Christian,
20 percent Muslim. But such is the small price for the director’s
Directed, Produced by & Director of Photography: Kim Longinotto.
Edited by: Ollie Huddleston.
Music by: D'Gary.
Released by: Women Make Movies.
Language: English & Pidgin with English subtitles.
of Origin: Cameroon/UK. 106 min.