Judge Joe Armenio throws himself upon the mercy of the court.
"Is this French justice?"
For his film 10th District Court, French photographer and documentarian Raymond Depardon set up two 16mm cameras in the courtroom of Parisian judge Michele Bernard-Roquin, shot footage from more than 100 cases (some of them more serious than others), then selected material from 12 of these cases to be included in the final film. Audiences weaned on the American media's relentless coverage of law and order will find Tenth District Court a somewhat jarring experience, since Depardon rejects every trope of what might be called the Dateline or Court TV style: editorializing voiceover, music, and interviews with participants. It would be a mistake, I think, to say that Depardon's approach is "objective," since every detail of selection, framing, and editing suggests directorial comment, but the approach is oblique enough that the film can serve as a sort of Rorschach test for one's views on the legal system or, more broadly, on systems of power in general.
Bernard-Roquin, of course, is the one "character" present in every scene of the film. She bears a certain physical resemblance to Judge Judy, although she's more refined than the American, subtly rather than ostentatiously "tough," and lacks her penchant for folksy witticisms. The defendants in the majority of the cases that Depardon has selected are minorities, people of African or Middle Eastern descent accused of crimes ranging from drug possession to assault to illegal immigration. In the film's most dramatic moment, a Middle Eastern man accused of stealing wallets explodes with rage as he is sentenced, saying to Bernard-Roquin "I hope you sleep well" and asking "Is that French justice?" as he leaves the courtroom. In another case, a black man, a repeat offender accused of selling pot, is sentenced to six months in jail. In another, an African man accused of being in the country illegally declares that he doesn't really know what nationality he is; he is both an outsider who has slipped through the cracks of the system and evidence of the inadequacy of the state's legalistic definitions of identity.
Depardon often sets his camera on long, unbroken shots of these defendants presenting their (usually confused or unconvincing) justifications. Some will watch these cases seeing in the accused only deadbeats who are trying to get away with something and feel admiration for Bernard-Roquin's combination of patient, rational concern and unyielding devotion to justice; some will see the cases as damning portrayals of a system which places overwhelming obstacles in the path of its poor and then condemns them when they find those obstacles insurmountable. I tend toward this latter view myself and I'd suggest Depardon does, too, although he never shows Bernard-Roquin as a villain. Rather she's a thoughtful and sincere agent of a system that doesn't work, that creates inequality and then dooms those on its margins to endless cycles of poverty and crime. (The lawyers probably are portrayed least well, usually coming off as talky blowhards who distract from the difficult business of discerning fact; Depardon suggests this once by cutting to the judge's annoyed look, a rare display of overt emotion, as a prosecutor rambles on.) Depardon's camera, always placed at a slightly low angle, suggests a solidarity with the accused. We are "in the melee," as the director says in his discussion of the film included on the DVD, looking up at the law with the defendant rather than seeing things from the judge's point of view.
The cases that Depardon presents last, as a sort of climax to the film, are especially interesting in this regard. One defendant is a man who is accused of driving without a license; he says that he could not get one because of previous offenses but needs to drive for his delivery job. When the judge says that he simply shouldn't drive, he bluntly retorts that delivery jobs are the best "legitimate" jobs he can find and that if he can't drive, he'll probably turn to more serious crime. The other defendant is a man accused of carrying a weapon, a sociologist who has dared to do some research and has determined that the knife in his possession was not, according to the law, a weapon. His impertinence inspires the judge's fiercest burst of anger, as she mocks him for engaging her as an equal on matters of law. I think Depardon finds these cases especially illuminating because they challenge the system in fundamental ways: the overly honest driver shows no respect for the integrity of the law and the sociologist shows no respect for the personal authority of the judge. These offenses, in the eyes of the legal system, are the really unforgivable crimes. Depardon seems to be saying that the purpose of a trial is not to discover the truth but to enforce hierarchy. As I've said, the film is oblique enough to serve as a kind of Rorschach test and all of this might reflect the assumptions I bring to the material. I do think, though, that the way Depardon has selected and arranged his footage is telling.
Koch Vision's DVD presents the film in a widescreen transfer that preserves the original aspect ratio, with removable English subtitles. They've included some attractive extras, including 20 minutes of a conversation between Depardon and an unidentified interviewer (from context it seems that he's a member of the film's crew). Depardon discusses the technical difficulties of filming in the courtroom (the judge wouldn't let him use a boom mike and they had to film on special 22-minute reels in order to capture as much of the trials as possible). There are two deleted scenes totaling eight minutes, both of which are mentioned in the interview. One concerns a man accused of assault who turns out to have a mental illness, while the other records the sentencing and immediate incarceration of a man convicted of crack possession. As he's being taken away, he dazedly asks the judge to repeat the term of the sentence: "one year," she says. The mistitled "Theatrical Release Audience Debate" doesn't contain much audience debate to speak of. The questions asked by the audience are not included, so we mostly get monologues from Depardon, Bernard-Roquin, and another legal official (referred to as the "President" of the court). The judge and the director seem to be on good terms, and he commends her for her "courage," although he jovially challenges her opinions on illegal immigration at one point. Bernard-Roquin also delivers a shrewd analysis of the ways in which Depardon makes his points through editing.
Tenth District Court, for all of its refusal to pander, is often an emotional film in ways that heighten one's (or, at least, my) identification with the accused; there's an inherent pathos in watching people justify and defend themselves, often feebly, and in being able to see them receive the decisions of the judge unadorned, without the interference of dramatic lighting or music or narration. There's also an occasional moment of great dignity, as when a young woman bravely and with composure details the terrible abuse to which she's been subjected by an ex-boyfriend whom she has accused of harassment.
Depardon has made a quiet and defiantly unassertive film about explosive issues; the main problem with such a film is that it might close off independent thought just as thoroughly as a polemic would. What good does such a film do if it merely confirms whatever you already believe? I do think, though, that Depardon has a point of view: one just has to look especially hard for it.
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