'The Judge': Film Review

A ray of feminist inspiration.

This profile of a glass-ceiling-shattering Palestinian jurist offers glimpses of little-seen aspects of life in the West Bank.

Before she became the first female Shari'a judge in the Middle East, Kholoud Al-Faqih devoted her law practice to representing abused women. The Judge offers compelling evidence of the ways Al-Faqih's professional background and personal temperament make her a perfect fit for her caseload in the Islamic courts: matters of divorce, child support, domestic violence and abandonment, all going to the heart of women's rights in a tradition-bound but evolving society.

Erika Cohn's documentary could have delved deeper at key points, but in its engaging fashion it strikes one inspirational note after another as its follows an ambitious, tough-minded and cheerful social revolutionary who set out, with her unprecedented appointment in 2009, to "throw a rock to stir these stagnant waters."

Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi, the chief justice who Al-Faqih approached with her proposal that she become a judge in the Shari'a courts — Islamic courts for family law — tells Cohn that at first he thought she was joking. But Al-Faqih had scoured Islamic texts to support her contention that no religious law forbids female judges. That in itself was a coup. As the film makes clear, Al-Faqih's daily work involves countering the misinterpretations of ancient text that are routinely used to control, suppress and sometimes murder women, all in the name of ostensibly literal readings of holy writ.

In his interviews for the documentary, Husam Al-Deen Afanah, a scholar with decidedly retrograde ideas, serves as a proxy for the voices of fundamentalism. But Cohn also captures an attorney, in informal conversation with colleagues, declaring with a blowhard's certainty that "no man would ever cause problems with his wife." Man- and woman-on-the-street interviews reveal a range of unpredictable opinions about women's place in contemporary jurisprudence, and a fascinating push-pull between custom and modernity.

Emmy-winning Cohn (In Football We Trust) shapes the profile through a mix of vérité footage, interviews and a few identity-protecting reenactments of legal proceedings. Some hearings do play out before DP Amber Fares' inconspicuous GoPro and DSLR cameras, with Al-Faqih's no-nonsense attention to detail as evident as her warmth and humor.

Away from the courthouse, Cohn captures a busy, focused and comfortable life — a life not usually depicted in chronicles of the Palestinian territories. Aerial views of the West Bank, highlighting its natural beauty and visual harmony, provide an alternate perspective to the harrowing scenes of ground-level turmoil that have become synonymous with the region. In its glimpses of Palestinian pluralism and even in its simple clarification of the meaning of Shari'a, a term that's often deployed as an anti-Islamic code word, the film casts a destigmatizing light.

The Judge follows its subject as she raises four children with her lawyer husband, discusses the ramifications of divorce law with friends and neighbors, and visits the working-class parents who raised her and 11 siblings, ensuring that most of them went to college. In his wisdom, her father understood how crucial an education would be for his daughters in particular.

Armed with that education along with her inner strength and determination, Al-Faqih is a beacon of hope, proudly championing other women in the legal profession and fearlessly challenging government corruption and incompetence when she sees it. As she weathers political reversals that turn her into "a judge without cases," the film describes the fray rather than entering it. But even from its measured distance, it shows that beneath her genial surface, Al-Faqih is always fighting the good fight.

Production companies: Idle Wild Films in association with ITVS
Distributor: Idle Wild Films
Director-producer: Erika Cohn
Executive producers: Geralyn Dreyfous, Diana Lady Dougan, Barbara Dobkin, Patty Quillin, Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen
Director of photography: Amber Fares
Editors: Sara Maamouri, Ken Schneider
Composer: Omar Fadel

81 minutes