Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders is a regular critic at Modern Times Review.

Two of the films presented at this year’s Belgian DocVille Documentary Film Festival, remind us about the continuing violation of justice – may it be animal or human injustice.

Eating Animals /The Judge

Christopher Quinn /Erika Cohn

USA, 2017

Two films screened in the Conscience programme of the Belgian DocVille documentary film festival were The Judge –about the first female judge in the Palestine Sharia courts, and Eating Animals – about the meat production industry in the United States (although with a world wide impact.)

The Judge: Fighting the Sharia

The Judge (2018) tells the story of Kholoud Al-Faqih. Convinced that there is no ruling within Islam that prevents women from becoming judges, she argues her case for the chief justice, Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi, takes the exam and gets appointed as the first female judge in a Sharia court in the Islamic world.

The Sharia courts rule on family affairs – most notably divorces – and are intended to provide quick and practical solutions both parties can live with. Anything but progressive in themselves, the courts rely on the Quran and the Sunnah (the teachings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad) to decide what is fair and just. Kholoud however refuses to limit her reasoning to 10th Century ideas and world views, and actively promotes the case for women in general: The equality of law, and the involvement of women in various areas of the justice department. The film switches between her work and her private life, and where they intersect in visits to other women and meetings. She is also a daughter, wife and mother of four and thus is firmly represented as a member of an extended family (the family as the cornerstone of society is in no way challenged.)

«Kholoud however refuses to limit her reasoning to 10th Century ideas and world views.»

Two steps forward, one step back

Despite this and even though Kholoud functions in a system that is highly alien to secular progressive women in the West, one cannot but admire her, as she and her colleagues try to change the system from within – slowly, and sometimes against the odds. One of those is dr. Husam al-Deen Afanah, a professor of Sharia law, who ordered a fatwa against the chief justice because he believes appointing women as judges is wrong. The reason: there has never been one in Islamic history. Consequently, the chief justice is replaced by a more conservative one, Yousef al-Dais, who reorganises the courts. It turns out he is corrupt and he is replaced by yet another chief justice, dr. Mahmoud Al-Habbash.

The judge. Director Erika Cohn

Relying mainly on interviews and observations and including some vox populas and inter-titles, the film tells the long and slow story of change – two steps forward, one step back. However, Kholoud’s strategy is probably more successful in the long run at it allows those who oppose to slowly be convinced, based on experience rather than indoctrination or propaganda, that the changes are fruitful and for the better.

Eating Animals: Consequences for animal welfare

Another department where change slowly happens (though it’s very much needed), is the meat production and consumption patterns. Based on the book by the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals investigates the consequences for animal welfare, the environment and, eventually: the people. While Virpi Suutari’s film Entrepreneur discussed the consequences of industrially produced meat replacements, Eating Animals addresses the consequences of our meat – and to a lesser extent – dairy consumption in terms of their production.

The main problem discussed in the film is ‘concentrated animal feeding operations‘ (CAFO): huge farms with thousands of animals which are indeed ‘fed’ to reach a certain size within weeks and are then transported to ‘processing facilities’, another euphemism, this time for slaughter houses.

The film forcefully opens with the observation that animals do not remember the past nor envision a future. Hence, in the factory farms their suffering is the totality of their existence.

Eating animals. Director Christopher Quinn

Except from Natalie Portman’s voice-over throughout the film, the latter centres around a number of main characters that are all middle aged men. These include Frank Reese, owner of poultry ranch The Good Shepard, Larry Baldwin, from the Waterkeeper Alliance, Bill Niman, rancher and owner of BN Ranches, Craig Watts, a contract farmer, and Jim Keen, professor of veterinary epidemiology turned activist.

«Eating Animals forcefully opens with the observation that animals do not remember the past nor envision a future.»

Economic interests at the expense of the consumer

The film rhetorically connects more traditional and small scale farming to American history, democracy and family values. As such, it shows itself aware of the sympathies of the more conservative population.

However, slow change from within is also suggested here: Reese starts an institute to preserve and teach heritage farming, Watts annuls his contract and exits the poultry industry.

Eating animals. Director Christopher Quinn

The film argues nothing new: What the current meat production and meat consumption demand is no longer tenable. Not only due to the way the animals are treated, but the whole industry is anything but transparent or healthy for humans. The drugs and antibiotics the animals are fed with eventually end up in the meat and the water, and the excrements of the animals spill into the water system. There are tremendous interests involved – economical and political – at the expense of the consumer and thereby the public at large, are what makes change to difficult. But animal justice is inseparable from human justice. Uninformed citizens are unable to make informed decisions and uninformed decisions are not only unjust, but also unethical.


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