Courtroom 3H

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Courtroom 3H
"This is emotion in the raw, not just from those faced with the possibility of seeing someone else take on responsibility for their kids, but also from the advocates representing them who are being put through the emotional wringer as well." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

The title of the last film by Antonio Méndez Esparza - a Spanish director who now calls Tallahassee, Florida, his home - was Life And Nothing More. It was a slice-of-life drama about a single mum and her kids struggling on the poverty line in Florida that often had a documentary feel, not least because he used a non-professional cast. This time out, he's gone for a pure documentary in the Frederick Wiseman mould,  that could have been titled Court And Nothing More, such is his spare approach to the material, filmed over 30 days in Tallahassee's Unified Family Court - where future rights of children and their parents are decided on a daily basis.

If the set up is simple and the camera static, the emotional journeys that are represented in the near-two hours of this well-edited film are anything but. We see the flow of parents through the court, accused of neglect or worse of their children, and who are at various stages in the process of regaining or losing custody. There is a level of anonymity maintained, children's faces are blurred and names are changed, but this is some of the most affecting testimony you're likely to see on the big screen this year. Cases are complex and the judge - who remains the same throughout - is open-minded and conciliatory in tone, even as he gives parents news they don't want to hear.

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The first half of the film presents a steady stream of cases, showing how children's voices, though heard, are also mitigated by social workers who know that what they want and what is best for them may not amount to the same thing. Later, we witness two individual trials, usually held in closed court but which the judge granted Esparza access to.

The cases are often complex, reflecting the world outside of the family unit, painting a tapestry of modern America - including a father trying to have contact with his child even though he is not a US citizen. This is emotion in the raw, not just from those faced with the possibility of seeing someone else take on responsibility for their kids, but also from the advocates representing them who are being put through the emotional wringer as well. Initially, viewers might find themselves trying to guess at judgement, but as the film wears on, it becomes clear just how difficult and borderline many of these cases are, as Esparza generates an empathy for those who are being called on to judge in our stead. There are tears and devastation here but moments of joy as well, when the system works as it should and parents find themselves reunited with children. It may be unfussy in terms of technique but Esparza's film gets to the heart of a system trying to do its best, even if there is a tacit acknowledgement that it may not always succeed.

Reviewed on: 29 Sep 2020
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Documentary about the Tallahassee Unified Family Court in Florida, which specialises in judicial cases involving children.

Director: Antonio Méndez Esparza

Writer: Antonio Méndez Esparza

Year: 2020

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: Spain, US

Festivals:

SSFF 2020

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