Sisters In law

April, 2006, Documentary

Directed by:Florence Ayisi, Kim Longinotto

Starring:Vera Ngassa, Beatrice Ntuba

Sisters in Law

Newsweek carried a story in its April 3rd issue about the growing importance of women in the political/governance process across Africa. Using the recent election of the continent's first female president, (Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia) as a point of departure, the article went on to highlight a number of others playing critical roles in various sub-Saharan governments. The circumstances that brought these individuals to prominence, (and the courage they've had to demonstrate in order to survive) strongly suggest that, at long last, women are assuming their rightful place in seats of power--and not a moment too soon.

British documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto underscores the beneficial results of this fundamental change by examining the work of Judge Beatrice Ntuba and Prosecuting Attorney Vera Ngassa in Kumba Town, a small village in Cameroon. The director vividly demonstrates the power of the camera to enlighten and entertain; working in the style of cinema verite, she has produced a film worthy of the critical praise it has already achieved. Simultaneously heartbreaking and enormously encouraging, Sisters demonstrates impressively that justice can empower those who most need it while setting new standards for community-wide social conduct in the process. The movie's a remarkable accomplishment.

Longinotta follows three cases during the 106-minute running time of her film; the first concerns the rape of a prepubescent girl, the second the savage abuse of a six- year old orphan and the last a divorce sought by a Muslim woman from her repeatedly abusive husband. Woven among these principal story lines are fascinating snippets of still others; a man who believes Islamic law requires that his wife obtain his permission before leaving their home, the efforts of an employer to avoid jail time for a critical employee by getting the latter's wife to drop her charges of spousal abuse, an informal focus-group discussion on the status of women in this Muslim-dominated society where girls are married off by their parents as soon as they reach puberty to men who father a number of children while reserving the "right" to toss their mothers out of the house. The corrupting imbalance of interpersonal power that flows from polygamy has never been demonstrated with such brutal, off-handed effectiveness.

Employing a courteous, no-nonsense style, prosecuting attorney Ngassa confronts the chauvinism of the men brought up before her on charges and encourages their victims, all while demonstrating the kind of empathy and good judgment that produce profound respect for the genuine rule of law. Case by case, this bright and dedicated woman strives to bring dignity and respect to the women she encounters, completely unintimidated by the cultural presuppositions that have led the men she indicts to assume their wives are little more than mobile pieces of the family's furniture. Chastened by her blunt frankness and unable to elicit a drop of sympathy for their offenses, the defendants promptly get reduced to sheepish acquiescence in a series of remarkable exchanges which the director follows with scrupulous attention to detail. Judge Ntuba delivers her verdicts and their resulting sentences with that same type of unvarnished candor, at one point opining that a defendant must have somehow slept through an entire century to believe that old mores are still a valid excuse for the suppression and exploitation of women.

Yet these two judicial paragons aren't attempting to invalidate the culture in which they live and function; the intensely communal nature of Cameroonian life, with its norms of gender-separating behavior, are tacitly accepted and recognized as the best way for the community to remain cohesive. It's only when some of the males in this village slough off responsibility for their own abusive behavior that this fearless duo swings into action. When they do, sparks fly and traditional male supremacy gets a sound thrashing. 

Jail time--at hard labor--is the result; given the astonished expressions on the men in the dock and those in the courtroom, it's obvious there's are some new sheriffs in town, enforcing a radically different type of social/marital behavior. In the film's final scene, Ms. Ngassa introduces two of her successful female complainants to a classroom full of young people, both male and female; their rapt attention and applause for the courageous women who bring their plight to court--and the courageous manner in which they are handled--suggest that Cameroon is much farther along in its understanding of marital rights and obligations than many in the first world realize. 

Given the poor theatrical distribution normally given to documentaries, Sisters may be hard to find on the big screen. But it put on your list for DVD viewing in the not-too-distant future; watching this surprisingly hopeful movie is an experience you won't want to miss.    

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