Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi’s documentary “Sisters in Law” is a fascinating insight into the workings of the judicial system in the small African town of Kumba in southwest Cameroon.

Hannah Patterson
Patterson is a screenwriter and producer. She has a background in film journalism and as commissioning editor of Creative Essentials, a series of books about filmmaking.

The “sisters” of the title refers to State Prosecutor Vera Ngassa and Judge Beatrice Ntuba, a formidable duo who relentlessly take on any wrongdoing in the area, in particular male violence against women. Outspoken and determined, they hold short shrift with bullies and liars, as we witness through their day-to-day handling of the cases brought before them, following several-fly-on-the-wall-sequences from initial claim to subsequent sentencing in court.

We see Manka, a young girl who was repeatedly beaten by her aunt; Sonita who claims she was raped by her neighbour; and Amina who wants a divorce after being subjected to beatings by her husband. All are women who in a previous era would have been shouted down for speaking out against figures of ‘authority’, or worse, would have been horribly punished. But with Ngassa and Ntuba to inspire and protect them, and the knowledge that justice might prevail, each feels that they can now safely stand up for their rights. The balance of power is shifting and the assertion that ‘men and woman are equal in rights in our country’ holds some truth.

Masterfully edited by Ollie Huddleston to create an absorbing but measured pace, the roving style of the camera perfectly suits the action of the film as it shifts between office, courtroom, village house and road. Eschewing the pomp and circumstance of much more familiar courts, sentencing rarely seems to hinge on physical evidence or witness corroboration, but almost always on a victim’s word, the scars on a body or an eventual confession from the perpetrator of the crime so skilfully extracted by the redoubtable pair. The direct manner of their questioning is often very funny, and their infectious optimism infuses the film with a welcome levity and humanity; despite the inexcusable nature of the felonies, the scenes depicted are never gratuitous or salacious.

With such resilience on show, the lingering feeling of “Sisters in Law” is absolutely one of hope: with enough courage and the right support network in place, victims can overcome the harshest of circumstances and see their oppressors appropriately punished. When Amina and Ladi, two Muslim women, are awarded convictions for spousal abuse -the first time this has occurred in seventeen year- the joy and amazement of the other villagers speak volumes. It’s a moving testament to the power of education and the enforcement of women’s rights, and a welcome portrait of an Africa that is rarely represented by the media in such a positive light.

 


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