In Depth

Peabody Award Winners: Vixen Films, Independent Television Service, ‘Independent Lens: Sisters in Law’

The stories of abuse—a prepubescent girl raped and an even younger one beaten with a coat hanger—are hard to hear in “Sisters in Law,” a documentary produced by Vixen Films and the U.K.’s Film Four, acquired for PBS’ “Independent Lens” by the Independent Television Service (ITVS). But the film itself, told from a fly-on-the-wall perspective in the courtroom in Cameroon’s Kumba Town, turns tragedy into something of a triumph, as the central players, no-nonsense state prosecutor Vera Ngassa and judge Beatrice Ntuba, attempt to bring justice to poor women.

After the documentary’s British producer-director Kim Longinotto made her acclaimed film “The Day I Will Never Forget,” about female circumcision in Kenya, she wanted to return to Africa, she said. She had been struck by “how many amazing young women and girls there are trying to change their lives.” But she wanted the new film to be in English (which it is, although much of the heavily accented English and pidgin dialogue is subtitled).

At a screening of “The Day I Will Never Forget,” she met Florence Ayisi, a Cameroonian who became her co-director. The two went off on a three-week scouting trip to Cameroon, Ms. Longinotto said.

On their last day, they met Ms. Ntuba, who had attended university with Ms. Ayisi. Ms. Ntuba and Ms. Ngassa both have “a lightness to them,” Ms. Longinotto noted, adding, “I think that’s how they survive.” It also gives the film its surprising levity.

It took nine months to get permission from the justice ministry to film in the courts, the first time cameras had been allowed, said Ms. Longinotto. Those being prosecuted had to agree to cameras as well, and even one of the film’s villains, a man who stood accused of beating his wife, gave permission halfway through the trial, Ms. Longinotto marveled. “He had a great sense of entitlement,” she said. “He was absolutely sure he was going to win.” He didn’t, as the film documented the court’s first convictions for spousal abuse in 17 years.

While the film received rave reviews, several critics wanted more context about how many female judges were attempting to bring similar changes to the male-dominated society, how the women had risen to power; and the reaction to the judgments. Ms. Longinotto said her verite style often evokes the same reaction, and “I worry about it.”

But, she said, “It’s not how many women judges there are, it’s how many are trying to change things.”

She aims to give viewers a “visceral experience,” a documentary that is “closer to the experience of watching a fiction film. You’re just following the characters and in the story and gripped by it in an emotional way.”

To add context and commentary, she said, would be to frame the story by an outside voice; she prefers to let viewers track down the additional context they want from the Internet.

After completing “Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go,” a documentary shot in an English school for disturbed children, Ms. Longinotto is editing another African film, about five women in South Africa who rescue children. “I’m hoping it will be a beautiful film,” she said, adding it will be “heartbreaking,” as two people in the women’s community died during filming.