Justice for Sale: Film Review

Justice for Sale Poster - P 2011

Justice for Sale Poster - P 2011

A female lawyer searches for justice for a man convicted of rape in the Congo.  

Law and Order goes to the Congo in Justice for Sale, a smart and to-the-point study of a disputed rape case investigated in and out of the courtroom. Young documakers Femke and Ilse van Velzen have forefronted Africa and cultural injustice in all four of their films; here, the Democratic Republic of the Congo takes the stand as a no-nonsense young lawyer, Claudine Tsongo, reviews the iffy case and its international implications. The fact that a woman lawyer and female directors take the side of a man who appears to have been unjustly sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit lends much authority to the doc’s thesis. Though the subject will be of marginal interest to most viewers, it should hit the spot with audiences interested in contemporary Africa.

The light it casts on the Congo’s justice system is not good, but it’s not totally bad, either, considering the remarkable lengths Tsongo – who is unpaid -- goes to see justice done, at least on film. As the story opens, Masamba, a frightened but dignified local healer, languishes in Bukavu prison serving a 10-year term for rape. He has always asserted his innocence, even when plea bargaining would have lightened his sentence. Claudine interviews him professionally, then sets off to track down the plaintive and her husband, hoping to get his case reopened. Half the pleasure of the film is watching her smooth, unruffled interview technique as she cajoles reluctant witnesses to come clean.

Suddenly there is a flashback to the original court case, an open air affair that saw the judges sentence Masamba despite scanty circumstantial evidence and conflicting testimony. This surprise scene makes it clear that the invisible, behind-the-camera filmmakers got involved at a much earlier stage in the legal process.

Tsongo and her fellow lawyers make a number of strong points about the corruption of the national judicial system, but more interesting is the role played by local and international human right organizations. Their efforts to curb violence against women have backfired, encouraging courts to go for quick convictions in rape cases, whatever the evidence. The film makes this sobering point forcefully and well.

Views of the African countryside and villages add a lot of color to the story.

Venue: IDFA Film Festival (Dutch competition), Nov. 23, 2011.
Production company: IFProductions
Directors: Femke van Velzen, Ilse van Velzen
Screenwriters: Femke van Velzen, Ilse van Velzen
Producers: Femke van Velzen, Ilse van Velzen
Director of photography: Rogier Timmermans
Music:  Jeroen Goeijers
Editor: Paul de Heer
Sales Agent: Films Transit International Inc.
No rating, 83 minutes.