Reviewed by Brian Gibson
Sisters in Law. A film by Florence Ayisi & Kim Longinotto Featuring Vera Ngassa & Beatrice Ntuba Cameroon/UK, 2005, 104 minutes, Color, VHS/35mm/Beta/DVD
Currently Screening in the United States and Canada
Sisters in Law opens by introducing one of the feistiest, no-nonsensest action heroes you’re likely to see on screens all year. State prosecutor Vera Ngassa walks into a weathered building, past barred windows and through the padded inner door to her office. This is where she brings abusive husbands and tyrannical guardians to task.
In one case, an aunt who has beaten her six-year-old niece with a coat hanger starts to sob and pleads to Ngassa, “Sister—.” The prosecutor, sitting upright behind her desk, retorts, “Don’t you ‘sister’ me!” and later, after sending the aunt off to custody, calls after her, “Shame!”
Sisters in Law launches us, without any preamble, into the world of Ngassa and court president Beatrice Ntuba, two tough-minded legal advocates for women and children in Kumba Town, Cameroon. The film throws us into the various dramas of Ngassa’s cases, associating the women exclusively with their work, offering no personal background (save for a few amusing scenes where Ngassa, somewhat more tenderly, cross-examines her son).
The downside of this approach is that these women’s world may seem the rule, rather than the exception it surely is in largely patriarchal West Africa. And questions remain: How did the Women’s Lawyers’ Association get started? Why in Kumba Town? Were the cases an unusual series of open-and-shut legal victories?
The other nagging suspicion Sisters in Law raises is the unspoken influence of the camera. When Ntuba begins a verdict with a specious generalization about the acceptability of family beatings in African cultures, or when a board of men decides to grant a Muslim woman a divorce while exhorting her to, “Feel free … . That’s what Cameroon wants!” it’s hard to believe that these judges aren’t playing to their cinematic audience.
Film-festivalgoers’ and juries’ embrace of Kim Longinitto’s and Florence Ayisi’s documentary is easy to understand. The film is permeated with Ngassa’s endearing mix of fierce indignation and relentlessly logical legal attacks in court. And there are many offbeat, hilarious moments.
If Sisters in Law doesn’t really delve into the effectiveness of Ntuba’s harsh sentences, it does expose the mundanity of crime. The rapists and abusers whom Ngassa confronts are remarkably pathetic and banal, from a pedophile in all his sniveling sulkiness to the aunt hollowly pleading for forgiveness from her niece.
Ultimately, it’s the rousing, triumphant spirit of Ngassa’s and Ntuba’s fierce compassion that makes Sisters in Law a qualified success.