Israeli and Palestinian perceptions of justice underpin two very different television productions that arrive Monday: PBS’ “Independent Lens” documentary “The Judge” chronicles the rise and day-to-day life of the Middle East’s first female Sharia law judge, Kholoud Faqih, while AMC’s ’70s-era drama series adapts John le Carré’s international spy thriller “The Little Drummer Girl.”
Though the shows have little in common beyond their Mideast connections, they do demonstrate how fact is often more compelling — and entertaining — than fiction.
“The Judge,” by Emmy-winning director Erika Cohn, is a rare look into the inner workings of Sharia law beyond the hysteria the term invokes here in the U.S. The film focuses on Palestine’s Islamic court of law, which adjudicates domestic and family matters. Unlike civil or criminal courts, it traditionally banned women from serving as judges — until 2009.
The diminutive and commanding Faqih challenged the institution with the help of a progressive male chief justice and their interpretation of the Hanafi Islamic school of thought. Now, she dons a magistrate’s robe and sash along with her hijab.
Far from the frightening descriptions of Sharia law according to terror factions like Islamic State, or the “creeping threat” cited by our own domestic alarmists, the cases chronicled in “The Judge” are as mundane as they come. Faqih rules on child support cases, contentious custody battles and property division in divorce proceedings. Though it’s a branch of the justice system most likely to affect women, it’s the last to place females on the bench.
It’s a rare sight — Palestinians on American television, where they’re defined by something other than the Israeli occupation, Hamas and the brutality of a war that never ends. It’s an exceptional, multi-dimensional look at the culture from the inside.
And Faqih is a dynamic ambassador into that world. The film chronicles her daily routine, following her as she gets her sleepy-headed kids ready for school, kisses her lawyer husband goodbye, navigates the disapproval of a patriarchal system with a fearlessness rooted in faith, and then stops by the bakery on the way home to pick up dessert. She also speaks with women on the ground about why much of what they’ve learned about their place in society via religious and cultural teachings is wrong.
“We drill stereotypes into children … that the woman’s role is to raise children, clean house and to cry if she has a problem,” she tells one gathering. “Why don’t we teach them that they have the same rights as men?” There’s a palpable sense of self-determination that spreads across the faces of the women in the room.
The camera is also there when she presides over the daily, long line of cases that come through the aging courthouse. Faqih hears ex-wives testify against the deadbeat exes who have dodged spousal support, male plaintiffs who claim their former wives are not allowing them to see their kids and more serious instances of domestic abuse.
In one scene, three strapping young men stand before her. In any other situation on the West Bank, they might never pay attention to a middle-aged woman, let alone heed her word. Here they stand and then sit at attention, utterly chastened when she says: “May I remind you you’re under oath … In the end, you stand alone before God.”
The community is represented here in many forms: rigid, bearded sheiks see her appointment to the bench as blasphemy, because “women are there to bleed, have children … not to be judges or mix with men.” One woman on the street sees Faqih as a hero, another in a hookah café questions whether a female might be too emotional to be a judge. Men’s answers seem just as varied: some support her, others wonder whether she is capable of “treating us as fairly” as she does the women.
In one of the sweetest scenes in the film, Faqih visits her parents, a humble couple who put their 12 children through college. Standing outside their goat pen with Faqih, her father extols his daughter’s success. The usually formidable judge blushes. “One day, she’ll take President Abbas’ place,” he brags. She laughs, “I don’t want that job.”
Palestinians and Israelis fall into more familiar roles in AMC’s “The Little Drummer Girl,” a six-part miniseries starring Florence Pugh as Charlie Ross, an amateur British actress and liberal activist who becomes an undercover agent for Israeli intelligence.
Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon with a distracting ’70s perm) leads the operation to track down and kill Palestinian terrorist Khalil. The elusive bomber and his brothers have been attacking Jewish targets across Germany, though for seasoned bad guys, they certainly make a lot of newbie mistakes. Khalil’s brother Salim leaves behind a trail of receipts and matchbooks that the Scooby-Doo gang could easily sleuth. And even when he’s locked by his captors in a padded, dark cell, he trusts that the food they give him is not laced with drugs that compromise his criminal faculties.
Also hard to swallow is the chemistry between Mossad agent Gadi (Alexander Skarsgard) and Charlie. The stoic and stiff Gadi is as monochrome as his tomato-hued polyester shirt, so it’s a mystery why Charlie ever falls for him, or is seduced into a dangerous life as a double agent whose sympathies are challenged by compelling arguments on both sides of the conflict.
While AMC’s 2016 adaptation of Le Carré’s “The Night Manager” starring Tom Hiddleston was a fast-moving, suspenseful ride, “The Little Drummer Girl” by director Park Chan-wook is slow to build and relies too much on the nonexistent chemistry between characters — and shots of a braless Charlie in sheer dresses.
Ironically, it’s the stout judge in the hijab who renders Mideast justice a sexier watch than a seductive spy.
‘Independent Lens: The Judge’
When: 10:30 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
‘The Little Drummer Girl’
When: 9 p.m. Nov. 19