Naked Law

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Review of '10th District Court', director Raymond Depardon

Courtroom drama is the stuff of innumerable television programmes and films. The fascination it holds for us lies in the sense that here, the guilty meet their just desserts and the innocent are exonerated. Everything is crafted to produce an effect of conviction (in a double sense) that transcends everyday experience.

This is part of a social mystique. The concentration on the individual drama unfolding in the courtroom may raise broader social issues but overall it reinforces the sense that only in this authorised space can we find redress for what is wrong in society.

Such films operate a sleight of hand, in which class interests and class power, social antagonism and collective struggle, are by and large made to vanish. Their unstated assumption is that justice is a matter of getting the law to work correctly - as if law were not ultimately the glue that helps bind us to seeing bourgeois society as the only arena in which conflict can be resolved.

Class struggle as the realisation of justice is written out of the form. Only individual agents acting within the confines of the courtroom can become the bearers of justice. In the end either the law, embodied in individual actors, triumphs over the odds or there is nothing. And we, the audience, see our salvation in these heroic actors rather than in our collective capacities.

Can this mystique be destroyed? A new documentary film by one of France's most celebrated photographers, Raymond Depardon, goes some way to doing this. Using minimal camera work, this documentary films twelve real, but very ordinary, court cases in the French legal system.

Among those, there are drink driving cases, a man is accused of insulting a female traffic warden, and two individuals are charged with carrying illegal weapons. One individual is contrite, another is defiant, a woman fails to understand why she is there, and others claim to be victims of over-zealous cops. Even the defence lawyers come across as if they've mugged up their briefs 15 minutes earlier.

What are we meant to see without the mystique that varnishes most courtroom dramas? Certainly, the court, which even sits at 2am, seems little more than a conveyor belt doling out prison sentences, fines and/or expulsion orders to people whose crimes are mostly petty. Some of the accused appear to come from the margins of society - particularly those who are black or North African in origin - condemned even before sentence is passed.

The simplicity of the documentary style implies a critique of the justice system. We glimpse bigger issues that lie beyond the humdrum proceedings - the precarious lives, mental health problems, "illegal" immigration, racist discrimination - that drive some to "crime".

But these are not explored - nor could they be without radically altering the way this documentary is constructed and moving beyond its privileged access to court administration. It leaves unscathed at the centre of this film the figure of the woman judge, who patiently, even "heroically", copes with the apparently never-ending task of supervising the system.

The neutrality of the film's approach, recording but not commenting, thus leaves the viewer in an ambiguous position. The mystique is stripped from the law but law as a system remains centrally untouched.