Published Nov 21, 2017When Kholoud al-Faqih triumphed over age-old patriarchal customs and became Palestine's first female judge in 2009, another hurdle was lying in wait before she could begin work: no uniform existed for a woman on the bench. Directly after achieving the impossible, Kholoud sat down to design and sew a uniform for herself, one to be worn by all future female judges of the Palestinian courts. In the reality of Erika Cohn's documentary The Judge, ambitious women of the Middle East must construct a future for themselves with whatever scraps are at hand.
In shadowing Kholoud's work and home life, Cohn offers an informative, straightforward (sometimes plodding) documentary about what it means to be one such ambitious woman. Shari'a law — the Qur'an-based legal system that Fox News likes to wail about whenever a woman dares to wear a hijab in public — is parsed with refreshing neutrality and lack of generalization.
Judge Kholoud as a subject is a documentarian's dream; there's stillness and a magnanimous grace that draws the camera toward her no matter whom else is nearby. Watching her litigate from a corner of her courtroom is like watching a prizefighter; she was born to do this. In conversation with Cohn, she acknowledges some of the oppression she has faced and the struggle of women within Palestine, but rarely succumbs to sorrow — except when describing the day a man stabbed his estranged wife just outside the doors of her office.
One might expect The Judge to linger upon such tragedies and the still-prevalent horror of honour killings, but Cohn takes her film down a more hopeful path. She and Kholoud's focus is on the forward momentum of women, of Palestine, and of the entire Middle East. Viewers may find themselves buoyed by that momentum, which makes it all the more affecting when Kholoud and her fellow female judge Asmahan Wuheidi are excluded from a committee to appoint new judges — and when all newly inducted judges are male.
For certain stretches, the documentary falters. Cohn's focus meanders, and questions arise of what edits could've been made for a tighter narrative arc. The Judge also suffers from a hazy timeline: is it months that Kholoud spends in professional purgatory when the sexist Chief Justice banishes her to administrative work? Years? This neglect by Cohn contrasts with what sometimes feels like staged discussions and awkwardly cued remarks from interviewees.
The Judge's inspiring tone and powerful subject make it a satisfying watch, and an important one. Cohn has several documentaries behind her now, and is poised to move next into feature films, where her sense of pacing and handle of narrative arc will hopefully continue to develop.
(Idle Wild Films)