Sisters in Law
- Posted: 25th Mar 2010
- Category: Reviews
The award-winning Sisters in Law mainly revolves around three cases of increasing atrocity: Amina, sick of her abusive and paranoid husband, seeks a divorce; six-year-old runaway, Manka, ends up in court when found riddled with scars; and pre-teen Sonita confronts her rapist and neighbour, who incomprehensively argues that she solicited sex from him. As the stories unfold, a complex picture of modern day Africa is painted. It is especially in Amina’s case that one of the more complicated gender, as well as cultural, struggles is underscored: the women’s fight to overthrow traditionally assumed male privileges. It is telling that a case like Amina’s for spousal abuse hadn’t received a conviction for 17 years at that point. As she takes her case to court, she receives discouragement from male community members, and, when in court, has to face the defence that a husband has the right to know where she is at all times. Even though Amina wins her case, it is not without some mockery and ridicule that she attains her divorce, revealing that while legally there is hope, much needs to change on a social level in the mindsets of individual community members.
Like in many of Longinotto’s documentaries, Sisters in Law takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, relying on the intimate nature of the stories to move the film along. Additionally, the smaller, more subtle shots from everyday life – like Vera playing with her child or a court employee dusting off a bench – intercut with the overarching narrative to give an intricate stylistic fibre that grounds the documentary in reality. What adds further depth though are the subject matters that challenge initial preconceived notions. Quips about men’s natures and stock characters like the shifty-eyed rapist and chuckle-head lawyer may seem to create a black and white world at first, but Manka’s case, for instance, flips the situation around, showing that men are just as able to help and women are equally capable of abusing. The message that is portrayed, then, is that achieving positive social change is a process that involves both genders, but not one that seeks to vilify one gender over another to fulfil that cause.
Though the cases alone already set up a fairly strong base for Sisters in Law, Vera and Beatrice are the life pulses behind the documentary. It’s primarily their bold, often humorous and determined characters that resonate throughout the film. Even more extraordinary are the multiple roles they modestly carry out. Not only legal authorities, the two are also mentors who truly care about the overall well-being of society. One of the most moving scenes is when Vera visits Manka’s abusive aunt, Rose, in jail. “We don’t hate you,” she tells Rose firmly before offering to buy her medication. For the first time, the aunt, who up until that point seemed insincere in her emotions, genuinely cries. It is in this rare moment that Vera’s powerful influence in several factions of her community is really felt.
Already well established for her documentaries such as the acclaimed Divorce Iranian Style, The Day I Will Never Forget, and Shinjuku Boys, Longinotto never ceases to impress with her ability to cover difficult – and seemingly inaccessible – subject matters with an intuitively perceptive eye. Sisters in Law is yet another trump card in her long list of successes, and while its numerous awards already speaks for itself, it’s the women and children that Longinotto captures so seamlessly on screen that speak more for the documentary than any award can.
Dir Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi, UK 2005, 104 mins,
English and Pidgin with subtitles
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