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Sisters in Law
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by Jay Seaver

"Why we love activist journalism"
4 stars

Journalism has two ideals that often seem to stand in direct opposition to each other. The first is transparency, also often referred to as "fairness", "balance", or "objectivity". It's the idea that a journalist or documentarian should report facts in a clear manner, allowing his or her audience to form an informed opinion. The other is the desire to advocate which is often the basis of the reporter's urge to investigate - one doesn't dig unless she suspects that something is buried. At first glance, "Sisters In Law" may appear to be simple documentation, but directors Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi have activism in mind - they're just subtle about how they go about it.

The film takes us to the small town of Kumba in Cameroon, with the focus on the family court presided over by Beatrice Ntuba. She is an authoritative figure who represents the country's written, secular law, but her authority is seldom given full precedence over religious doctrine and community pressures. We follow several cases that Prosecutor Vera Ngassa brings before her court: Two are divorce procedures (though only one of these marriages actually has any sort of official standing; one has a ten-year-old girl accusing her neighbor of rape; the last is an allegation of child abuse.

The victims in all four cases are female, and the community is primarily Muslim, but Longinotto and Ayisi paint a more complex picture than women's rights being trampled by Islam. For starters, the two leads are strong women, and any man who thinks he can intimidate Ntuba in her courtroom is woefully mistaken. The men and women in their offices are respectful and professional. When the relatives of six-year-old Manka see how her aunt has abused the child, it's the men who are the most visibly shaken. The sense one gets is that in this part of Africa, women have traditionally had the job of maintaining the social order, and Ngassa and Ntuba are modern examples of that. Socially, it's an extension of their roles as mothers; when Ngassa's husband brings her son by to visit, we see that she's loving, but no pushover.

Longinotto and Ayisi construct Sisters in Law like a narrative film: There's no titling to identify names and positions or cutaways to experts. We meet the victims and their abusers as they meet with Ngassa and Ntuba, who draw the story out of them. A great deal of the film plays like a crime procedural, lingering just long enough for the western audience to get acclimated to the cultural differences. It's a poor, hot area, with dirt floors and courtrooms with their doors open for ventilation. The filmmakers never look down on their subjects, though, and envelop us in their world to the point where we accept it as complex, even though aspects of what we see are unpleasant.

With four stories to cover, the editing at times could use some improvement. I occasionally found the two divorce cases running together, for instance. There also seemed to be a gap in the story of the ten-year-old girl who was raped by a neighbor - it jumped from questioning and testimony that would seem unlikely to convince a jury to Judge Ntuba handing down a verdict in a way that implied there was no room for doubt whatsoever. It's far from a fatal flaw, and I imagine that when you're filming a documentary in Camaroon with a small crew, you use what footage you're able to capture.

The film's coda doesn't quite fit in with the rest; it takes place in a classroom and almost feels like a "talking head" style film rather than the immersive feel of the previous hour and a half. It gives us interesting information, though, about how long Cameroon has had domestic abuse laws on the books and how often they've been taken advantage of. It's here that the audience realizes what a role the existence of this film played in the events it chronicles. Would two Muslim women have gone so far in pursuing divorce if there wasn't a film crew following them, assuring them that their stories would not be distorted? Probably not; we see a lot of pressure to allow the family and community resolve the issues outside the court. The camera changes the situation, and the integrated classroom (Christians, Muslim, and other women) implies that the next generation will defend the advances these women have made.

"Sisters in Law" never openly declares its activism, but you can't miss it by the end. It's a fine example of showing how the camera can help make changes for the better even as it just seems to passively watch.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12335&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/31/06 10:42:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sydney Film Festival For more in the 2005 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2005 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/04/09 dr thompson ntuba great movie production and activism 5 stars
6/01/06 San Lamar i liked it 4 stars
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Directed by
  Kim Longinotto
  Florence Ayisi

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