The 10th District Court

March, 2006, Documentary

The Tenth District Court: Judicial Hearings

Cinema Verite', the French term for documentary verisimilitude, perfectly describes this fascinating examination of a Parisian court which handles a unique combination of civil actions, misdemeanors and petty crime in one geographic section of that beautiful city. Working with real defendants and actual officials, director Raymond Depardon, a veteran of the genre, provides a worm's eye-view of the French judicial system, going inside the courtroom to present cases whose only departure from reality lies in the fictional names given to those being prosecuted. Depardon's quietly observant cinematography records baleful lives and bored avocats with the same detached clarity, providing a unique peek into the justice system, one of contemporary society's most important, if often banal, institutions. If he'd used cameras instead of a pen, Emile Zola couldn't have given us a better examination of legal bureaucracy.

Lawyers trained in American jurisprudence will find this film especially interesting because it allows an interesting comparison of U.S. courts with those of the French. Compared to our approach, the roles of judge, prosecutor and defense attorney are more comprehensively deployed and certain opportunities for assessing money damages, (essentially as punishment for inappropriate behavior occurring during the commission of a minor criminal act) can also be levied. Thus, a meter maid writing out a ticket to a harried construction worker which provokes his use of the word "bitch" draws a suspended license for the defendant as well as a fine of $250 for the insult. A purse-snatcher not only gets a year in jail as a repeat offender but finds himself paying $500 to the officer who nailed him. 

All this is accompanied by declarations of innocence from defendants, aggressive accusations by the prosecutor and the Gallic shrug of the shoulders from defense attorneys hoping for sympathy from an energetic and alert judge. Wearing robes reflecting the rich history of France's Napoleonic past and skilled in the legal minuet of judicial procedure, the court personnel steamroll through the lives of those in the dock; even the best educated and most sophisticated among them wilt when seeking to explain away that extra glass of wine which put them over the legal limit for driving or why a dull knife used for peeling fruit can still be classified as the illegal carrying of a concealed weapon. Try though they might to preserve a bit of dignity, the accused shrivel under Depardon's camera; the system's designed to shame as much as punish and the faces of those on trial show it, while all too often, the judge & prosecutor use the power of their offices to subtly belittle those brought before them.

A couple of years ago, another documentary, To Be & To Have, presented the growth and training of young French minds in a quietly run, one-room rural schoolhouse with the same matter-of-fact clarity employed on adults in this urban setting; in both these films, ordinary lives are examined with exquisite attention to the smallest detail of the processes by which a society manages the enculturation of its citizens and the restraints employed to assure that they act upon them. 

The Verdict? 10th District provides a civics lesson to which everyone, everywhere should be exposed.     

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