Sisters in Law

Surprising, engrossing, heartening... probably not qualities you’d expect of a documentary about a judge and prosecutor in a state court. But Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba wield serious power – and use it well.

‘Men and women are equal in this country,’ says Beatrice, speaking as president of the court. Maybe so, in law. But it clearly isn’t generally so in her district of Kumba, Cameroon. In a traditional patriarchal society – and in often extraordinary and traumatic circumstances – Beatrice and prosecutor Vera use the law to protect women and children. Manka, six years old, is scarred all over her body and legs. Sonita, aged nine, slowly tells of her imprisonment and rape. Amina is afraid her husband will kill her if she returns home. Directors Longinotto and Ayisi patiently and respectfully show us their unravelling stories from the time the complainants first appear in Vera’s office and she sends out her police officers – men and women – to bring people in for her to question.

Vera is the all-round exemplary official – kind and understanding, but knows what’s what, and takes absolutely no shit from anyone. It’s fascinating to watch as suspects realize they’re in serious trouble. The aunt, amazed that she faces gaol for enslaving and beating Manka. The husband, told that his wife doesn’t have to ask permission to leave the house and he has no right to beat her. It’s even more striking to see Manka and Sonita realize that they’re safe and Amina’s joy when she wins a divorce.

This is a compassionate, enlightening film but a limitation of its _cinema verité_ style is the lack of any narrative or wider context. How, for example, did these women come by and keep their positions of such power and influence?

New Internationalist issue 394 magazine cover This article is from the October 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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