In Ramallah, Palestine, stands a small run-down building which is sandwiched between apartment blocks. There is a small sign hanging over the narrow entrance way highlighting that this is the Shari’a court building, and what goes on behind the deceiving exterior frames the home-lives of the vast majority of the Palestinian population.
In this building, a small woman in a brightly coloured sash (the colours of the united Palestine flag) works tirelessly on family based court cases. Divorce, spousal issues, alleged abuse and custody battles are just some of the daily cases which she presides over. This woman is Kholoud Al-Faqih and she's a judge in this court. She’s not just any judge, however, Kholoud is just one of two female judges ever to preside over Shari’a cases, otherwise known as the Islamic law courts.
Erika Cohn's (In Football We Trust) The Judge is a deep dive into Judge Kholoud and consequently the Shari'a law system that binds the country together. The documentary traces Kholoud's motivations to become a judge, the battles she has faced and the arguments from those who oppose the very idea of female judges. With almost unfiltered access to the Shari'a courtrooms and Kholoud's work and home life - The Judge is a fitting testament to an inspirational woman.
Judge Kholoud is a formidable person – you get the sense that just being in her presence would be inspiring and enlightening experience. Her character reaches beyond the screen, inviting you to be part of the small but powerful revolution that she is starting. She's charismatic, yet also calm and reassuring. Young women flock around her consistently throughout the film - she's a beacon of hope for others wanting to follow in her footsteps. Kholoud, as seen in the countless conversations with her protegées, wants other women to follow her too.
With its observational style and unfettered access to the courtrooms, The Judge is reminiscent of Divorce Iranian Style – Kim Longinotto’s 1998 documentary which had never before seen access into the Iranian legal system. Though released 20 years ago, many of Longinotto’s subjects frequently bring up similar issues to the ones seen in The Judge. Divorce is a key topic which comes up in both documentaries again and again – the custody, maintenance and financial support of children post-divorce is another topic which is clearly still a huge issue within the Islamic courts. The vérité style of filming within the courtroom is mirrored from Divorce, Iranian Style, but there is one major difference. There are no female judges in Longinotto’s documentary – plenty of administrative staff but no female judges presiding over cases.
It’s also interesting to see the differences in the interpretation of Shari’a law between Divorce, Iranian Style and The Judge – in the latter, there is more emphasis given to the rights of women as well as men in deciding who can divorce whom and divorce is seemingly accepted more freely in general. Throughout the film, Judge Kholoud is determined to administer Shari’a law as closely to the book as possible, but her interpretations seem to lean far more towards equality than others do.
Talking head interviews are cut in amongst the court room scenes as well as observational sequences in Kholoud's home and around her family. From each of these areas, we gain a real insight into who Kholoud is, how she became to be the first female judge in Palestine but also that this daunting title is not all that she is. She's a mother of four, a wife, a daughter, a sister and she has a wicked sense of humour. A poignant interview with her father reveals the supportive nature of both her parents - particularly with a view to equality between the genders - and seeing where Kholoud gets her strong spirit allows us to understand her more as a person.
Clearly there is still a long way to go before Kholoud achieves the kind of gender equality she is striving for. At times anger inducing (in particular, a few of the lengthy interviews with conservative academics), yet equally as inspiring - Cohn succeeds in weaving a tale of triumphing over adversity in the most human way.
There are many obstacles yet to face, but The Judge leaves us with no doubt that Kholoud will counter them.