A woman whose husband routinely beat and raped her. A 10-year-old girl who was raped by a neighbor. A 6-year-old girl who was kidnapped, enslaved and routinely beaten by her aunt with a hangar. These are some of the cases that come before Judge Beatrice Ntuba in Sisters in Law, Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi's fascinating look at justice, Cameroon-style. Forthright to the point of badgering the defendants, Judge Ntuba is the Judge Judy of Kumba Town, a one-woman wrecking crew dismantling the patriarchal culture that has governed this West African country for so long. And the documentary, which also features Vera Ngassa, a prosecutor who winds her way through a judicial system only vaguely like our own, becomes a celebration of female empowerment, one conviction at a time.
That includes the first conviction ever for spousal abuse, a landmark case made all the more path-breaking by the fact that the couple in question is Muslim. We watch as Muslim elders take a stab at resolving the dispute, reluctantly granting the wife a divorce after Judge Ntuba has passed sentence on the unrepentant husband. And the Muslim woman seems as stunned at the outcome as we are; she's free. Exactly how decisions are arrived at in the Cameroonian judicial system remains a mystery. The law itself seems to combine tribal and religious customs with colonial-based statutes, and we could have used a little more help in understanding how it works. But there can be little doubt who's in charge. The black-robed, silver-tongued embodiment of blind justice, Judge Ntuba commands authority. Her word is law.