Film Review: Cameroon's Patriarchy Gets A Lashing From Sisters in Law
Reviewed by Brian Gibson & Shola Adenekan
Sisters in Law opens by introducing one of the fieriest, no-nonsense action heroes you’re likely to see on screens all year.
State prosecutor, Vera Ngassa, walks into a weathered building, past barred windows and through the padded inner door to her office. This is where she brings abusive husbands and tyrannical guardians to task.
In one case, an aunt who has beaten her six-year-old niece with a coat hanger starts to sob and pleads to Ngassa, “Sister—.” The prosecutor, sitting upright behind her desk, retorts, “Don’t you ‘sister’ me!” Later, after sending the aunt off to custody, calls after her, “Shame!”
Sisters in Law introduces us without any preamble into the world of Ngassa and court president, Beatrice Ntuba - two tough-minded legal advocates for women and children in Kumba Town, Cameroon.
The film throws us into the various dramas of Ngassa’s cases, associating the women exclusively with their work, offering no personal background (save for a few amusing scenes where Ngassa, somewhat more tenderly, cross-examines her son).
The downside to this approach is that these women’s world may seem the rule, rather than the exception in largely patriarchal Cameroon. And questions remain: How did the Women’s Lawyers’ Association get started? Why in Kumba Town? Were the cases an unusual series of open-and-shut legal victories?
The other nagging suspicion Sisters in Law raises is the unspoken influence of the camera. When Ntuba begins a verdict with a specious generalisation about the acceptability of family beatings in Cameroon, or when a board of men decides to grant a Muslim woman a divorce while exhorting her to, “Feel free … . That’s what Cameroon wants!” it’s hard to believe that these judges aren’t playing to their cinematic audience.
Film-festival goers’ and juries’ embrace of Kim Longinitto’s and Florence Ayisi’s documentary is easy to understand. The film is permeated with Ngassa’s endearing mix of fierce indignation and relentlessly logical legal attacks in court, and there are many offbeat, hilarious moments.
If Sisters in Law doesn’t really delve into the effectiveness of Ntuba’s harsh sentences, it does expose the mundaneness of crime.
The rapists and abusers whom Ngassa confronts are remarkably pathetic and banal; from a paedophile in all his snivelling sulkiness to the aunt hollowly pleading for forgiveness from her niece.
The film's co-director, Florence Ayisi, a Cameroonian who teaches film and video at the University of Wales International Film School says she has been very concerned about the images of Africa in the West:
"It’s always poverty, war and other problems: a staple diet of negativity. Of course, those things are there but it bothers that we don’t see any other reality. Also, as a woman I wanted to make a film about a strong woman."
Ultimately, it’s the rousing, triumphant spirit of Ngassa’s and Ntuba’s fierce compassion that makes Sisters in Law a qualified success.
Florence Ayisi studied producing and directing at the NSFTV in Leeds, England, where she produced two short films before co-directing a documentary about a dancer choreographer.
She has just completed a short film, My Mother: Isange, to mark the International Womenís Day on 8 March 2005. She teaches practice-based research at the International Film School Wales.
Kim Longinotto studied camera and directing at the National Film School. While she was there, she made Pride of Place (78), a critical look at her boarding school. After the NFS she worked as camera on a variety of documentaries. She directed numerous documentaries in countries like Japan, Iran and Kenya. Films: Theatre Girls (79), Underage (83), Fireraiser (85), Eat the Kimono (89), The Good Wife of Tokyo (92), Dream Girls (93), Divorce Iranian Style (98), Gaea Girls (00, SFF01), Runaway (01), The Day I Will Never Forget (02).
With thanks to Dibussi Tande.
Sisters in Law is now showing at selected cinemas in the UK, Canada and the United States.
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