Sisters in Law
2005Director: Kim Longinotto, Florence Ayisi
Cast: Vera Ngassa, Beatrice Ntuba, Amina Abubakari
im Longinotto’s Sisters in Law had its US theatrical opening on April 12 at Film Forum in New York City’s South Village. Opening night featured a Q & A with Longinotto after the 8 p.m. screening, which played to an overflow audience, with some standing in the aisle.
Sisters in Law was my fourth movie that day and—therefore counter-intuitively—by far the best. Shot in the mostly poor, mostly Muslim Kumba Township in the southwest corner of Cameroon over three and a half months in 2004, Longinotto and co-director Florence Ayisi’s film follows several cases involving women and children plaintiffs through the local justice court. Young Sonita was raped by a neighbor. Amina seeks divorce, fearing her husband will kill her if she’s sent home. Six-year-old Manka bears torso scars from coat-hanger beatings by her custodial aunt. Longinotto profiles prosecutor Vera Ngassa (also a judge and university law professor) and district court judge Beatrice Ntuba as they investigate and resolve these cases. Both women are entirely clear about the stakes for community and petitioners alike.
At several points, the camera rests on that universally-recognized scowl of bafflement some men wear when they are thwarted by women for the first time. The opening night audience laughed aloud at those moments, though Longinotto says for her that laughter is more “dark and bleak” than comedic. Speaking by phone last week from Colorado, the filmmaker said those men “didn’t mind being filmed—they didn’t see their behavior as wrong.” She recalled how one seemingly “urbane and educated” fellow acknowledged beating his wife while adding, “But I gave her medicines.”
A handful of positive media reviews in early April paved Sisters in Law’s way to Film Forum. This theatrical release follows 120 festival appearances world-wide, with myriad prizes and accolades. Stella Pence, who runs Telluride’s Film Festival, calls it “one of the best documentaries of all times.” But this doc is destined for classic status more for its women and their solutions than for exposing comfortable and clueless men as cads.
The specific quality of justice portrayed here makes the film uncommon and instructive. At one point, Vera leans over to softly ask a beaten-down wife, whose purchase price was a pig–and who was not, according to Longinotto, “even at her own wedding”—“Oh, Madame, what shall we do with these two men?” In another scene, a policewoman attached to the court investigates the child Manka’s family situation. Manka’s aunt claims the girl’s parents live in a countryside village, but when the officer asks Manka, she reveals that her parents are dead—so she is quite at her aunt’s mercy. While Longinotto calls this type of exchange “Vera’s democratic instinct,” any acquaintance with treating abuse would tell you that such direct questions—and believing the answers—also constitute the first intervention on the road to healing trauma.
Longinotto takes the time as well to intersperse several short interludes in which Vera plays with her own son in her office. She attentively talks with him, touches him, tickles him, teaches him colors and gently corrects his wrong answers. Rather than hiring a narrator to intone a list of policy solutions, Longinotto shows us specifically how the new men of Kumba are raised. From Colorado, she said the boy’s name is Moses, and that Vera adopted him when his young mother came to the court’s attention after trying to kill her baby.
A lack of back-story and context crop up as the most common complaint about Sisters in Law. Longinotto and Ayisi (an International Film School Wales lecturer and native Cameroonian) shot in strict cinema verite style. As a big fan of narration and context, I was surprised to notice that, in this case, that complaint simply didn’t register. Indeed, imposing such conventions would interfere with Sisters in Law’s capacity to connect as a film. Having watched “practically all” of The Sopranos, Longinotto notes that the HBO series’ viewers don’t expect history or statistics on the Mafia. She herself was aiming for “the power of fiction—the sense of danger and of immediacy and of freshness” that generates identification and emotional connection.
Trained in England’s National Film School, Longinotto has been producing verite docs for a couple decades, often traveling outside the U.K. and Europe to do so when not writing for TV. Sisters in Law is her third courtroom film, and as such, makes smart use of a genre that connects well with Western audiences. She made Divorce Iranian-Style (1998) (with co-director Ziba Mir-Hosseini, author of a book on Iranian divorce courts) in an attempt to fill the gap between a surge of European films about Middle Eastern “fanatics” and “graceful, poetic” Iranian films such as those of Abbas Kiarostami. The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) follows a group of Kenyan schoolgirls who seek human rights workers’ help to escape genital mutilation.
Her next trip may be to Pakistan, with a friend born there, who’s writing a novel and wanted company, but also in response to what she sees as an “anti-Muslim crusade” in the West. As always, she’ll seek stories about women--that might make a film.
Sisters in Law’s limited theatrical release in the US through the end of May includes San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and Chicago. Check screenings at the Women Make Movies website, wmm.com. Hear Nancy’s interview with Kim Longinotto on Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM, on June 1st at 8 p.m. EST via web-streaming at www.waer.org.