Americans are so often prone to either take apart or take for granted their judicial system that when a documentary like "Sisters in Law" comes around, many might come away from it thinking its upbeat view of how justice is dispensed in a small town in Cameroon is too good to be true.
Maybe things aren't always as triumphant or clear-cut in this West African nation's legal system as the movie would have you believe. But co-directors Kim Longinotto ("Divorce Iranian Style") and Florence Ayisi, deploying an unobtrusive yet avidly intimate approach, convince you that common sense, compassion and toughness can save the powerless and afflicted while punishing those who do the afflicting.
It helps the filmmakers' case to have two magnetic protagonists at their disposal: prosecutor Vera Ngassa and court president Beatrice Ntuba. These two no-nonsense jurists make up a kind of family services court for the village of Kumba, where religious and tribal patriarchy have for centuries imposed their immutable will upon women and children.
Three cases are woven into "Sisters in Law's" narrative. One involves a preadolescent girl who accuses a neighbor of rape. Despite the suspect's feeble attempts to influence both his victim and the court, he's found guilty and imprisoned.
Another case involves a battered wife who brings her husband to trial despite objections from her Muslim community. The husband, who apparently has a long history of such behavior, seems not to know that what he did is wrong until it is emphasized by Ngassa and Ntuba.
The most wrenching case concerns a 6-year-old girl named Manka, whose scarred and battered body is brought to Ngassa. Manka's care was entrusted to an aunt, whose punishment of the child was, to say the least, cruel and unusual. When the aunt, confronted with the evidence, pleads with Ngassa by calling her "sister," the prosecutor fires back, "Don't you 'sister' me!"
At that point, you might start to seriously wonder if there's a way to get this woman to run for office here in America.
'Sisters in Law'
MPAA rating: Unrated.
A Women Make Movies release. Producer-director-director of photography Kim Longinotto. Co-director Florence Ayisi. Editor Ollie Huddleston. Music D'Gary. In English and Pidgin with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
At Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., (323) 655-4010.