Sisters in Law

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Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi's new documentary has been trumpeted as a "totally fascinating, often hilarious look at the work of one small courthouse in Cameroon."

Though accurate, the description comes nowhere near representing the seriousness of the subject matter (it's hard to translate "often hilarious" into "child rape" or "spousal abuse").

This riveting documentary was filmed in a primarily Muslim village in Cameroon, a former British and French colony that's considered one of the more stable African countries. It focuses on four court cases prosecuted by Judge Beatrice Ngassa and heard by state prosecutor Vera Ntuba. The crimes aren't pretty: Ten-year-old Sonita has accused her neighbor of violently raping her. Manka, 6, has run away from her physically abusive aunt. No less horrifying are the cases of Ladi and Amina, Muslim women who are prosecuting their physically and sexually abusive husbands.

It's rare for women to bring such charges, and convictions are rarer still — at the time of filming, there hadn't been a conviction for spousal abuse in 17 years. Both Ladi and Amina must confront a great deal of social pressure to drop the cases, go back home and try and patch things up with their abusers. Their cases reflect the clash of traditional culture with modern laws. When Ntuba reads out the charge of marital rape to Ladi's husband, he wonders — and seems to be genuinely perplexed — "How can I force her? She's my wife."

This statement earns the man a real tongue-lashing from Ntuba, who isn't afraid of speaking her mind in court. Neither is attorney Ngassa; both women have a way of cutting through the bullshit offered by defendants and getting to the truth of the matter, and Ntuba isn't afraid of dispensing harsh sentences. (One gets the feeling that a sentence of 10 years, including hard labor, sucks a lot worse in Cameroon than it would in the United States.) Yet there are occasional moments of levity. The country's British roots show in odd ways — Judge Beatrice Ntuba and state prosecutor Vera Ngassa wear powdered white wigs for formal court sessions, and Judge Ntuba is addressed as "My Lord."

It's refreshing to see a depiction of positive change coming from within the African power structure. But it's also daunting to see how far women like Ntuba and Ngassa have to go.

 

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19. Call 313-833-3237.

Nancy Kaffer writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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