Full Frame Movie Review: The Judge

You don’t yell, “fire” in a movie theater unless there’s really flames. But there’s no excuse to ever say, “Shari’a law” around you elderly-in-laws. For the past few years this has been a big fear tool to make people swear the Constitution is being abandoned as Muslims secretly takeover the government. Sadly I was there during a Shari’a law discussion at a holiday party. They were thrilled that state governments were outlawing Shari’a law. It appeared their understanding came from a chain email written by the same expert who declared Mr. Rogers was a Navy Seal killer during the Vietnam war. The Judge gives a sense of what goes on inside Shari’a law court and a woman daring to change the way things have been done for centuries in the Middle East.

Kholoud Al-Faqih doesn’t back down from power. Early in her law practice, she wanted to be a judge even though she was told it was a man-only job. She dared to prove that there was not law or dictate that a woman couldn’t be a judge in Shari’a court. Her persuasive case allowed her to pass the exam and be appointed a judgeship. She also made sure another woman joined her on the bench. In Palestine, the Shari’a court is where family law is handled. Al-Faqih handles divorces and child support with laws and rulings based on sources found in Islam. She’s no nonsense in her courtroom which is a tight office space with a desk, a table and a few chairs for the unhappy couple and their lawyers.

There was an interesting element that came up in the film is Palestine allows a man to have multiple wives. Of course this is now “natural” in America judging from all the reality shows about guys with extra wives in Arizona and Utah. But in Palestine, you don’t have to tell your original wife that you’re getting married again or even divorce her. (I’ve been told that since filming that moment, the law has been changed and you need to let your wife know if you’re marrying another woman.) The judge has her hands full during the day.

Just because Kholoud Al-Faqih broke the gender barrier on the bench doesn’t mean she’s set for life. There are major figures critical of her sitting in judgement. Many don’t believe a woman should rule because she has emotions. At one point she finds her boss removed from power and the new guy takes away her caseload under the lie that only large courtrooms should handle divorces because of security reasons. She’s reduced to reviewing paperwork. But she doesn’t back down and accept her fate. She realizes that if she doesn’t get justice for herself what’s the point of talking about seeking justice for women in this system. It’s only appropriate that this film plays on the same day as RBG, the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These are two women who must do more in their role on the bench and in the community.

Director Erika Cohn and her crew do a fine job of explaining what goes on in Al-Faqih courtroom. They speak with the judge’s critics. Although most of their arguments get reduced down to “but she’s a woman…” By the end of the film, you get a better sense of how Shari’a law is applied in the Middle East than off a shared Facebook meme posting.

The Judge is slated to open up in New York City on Friday April 13 at the Cinema Village. Dates in Los Angeles (Laemmle Monica Film Center from April 20 -26) and other cities to follow. The film will be part of the upcoming season of PBS’s Independent Lens and eventually be available on Amazon Prime.

We were able to catch up with Erika Cohn after the screening at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Here’s our interview:

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