A riveting pageant of human behavior on both sides of the law unfolds with humor, poignancy and a measure of inherent majesty in “The 10th District Court: Moments of Trial.” Ten years after his insightful and entertaining “Delits Flagrants” (Caught in the Act) provided an astonishing window into the workings of the French justice system by recording preliminary interviews with suspects, vet documaker and world class photographer Raymond Depardon obtained unprecedented permission to film misdemeanor hearings in a Paris courtroom. Justice may be blind but no visual aids are needed to see that doc’s future in hardtops, fests and on television is clear and bright.
While America has a tradition of televised legal proceedings from “Divorce Court” to “Judge Judy,” the actual workings of French justice are rarely glimpsed by anyone outside the legal profession or who hasn’t been accused of a crime. When French doc “Murder on a Sunday Morning” — about an innocent American youngster railroaded with scant evidence — won the documentary Oscar two years ago, that film’s director said he lensed in the U.S. because it was simply out of the question to film an actual case-in-progress in France. A 1985 law permits the filming of French trials on the condition that they be of historical importance (Klaus Barbie, etc.) but prohibits making the footage public for 20 years.
Once Depardon secured special permission to film for three months in the summer of 2003, 169 people signed releases to be filmed during hearings and subsequent sentencing in a Paris courthouse. Depardon whittled these down to 25 individuals involved in a dozen cases. Infractions range from drunk driving to pick-pocketing, from carrying a concealed weapon to telephone harassment, from remaining in France without proper documents to dealing dope.
Depardon places his main camera at the level of the defendants as they answer questions from Judge Michele Bernard-Requin, a stern but fair woman who keeps things moving with a sure hand. Her compassion and occasional bemusement shine through but she does not suffer fools or impudence gladly.
A flighty grandmother of four finds her arrest for drunk driving unwarranted because she hardly ever drinks, but when she does she consumes “only really good wine.” A man caught driving without a license insists that the technicality of not being legally authorized to drive can’t apply to him because he must drive for his work as a deliveryman. He tells the court his only alternative career options would be car thief or drug dealer. Although nearly every word he says further incriminates him, the judge appreciates his honesty.
A man accused of harassing an ex-girlfriend with threatening phone messages appears reasonable enough until the woman’s side of the story is aired. Be they contrite, defiant, confused or resigned, all the defendants emerge as singular individuals whose personality traits are magnified by their situation and the camera. Verbal exchanges are frequently comical and sometimes heartbreaking.
Depardon judiciously cuts away to plaintiffs or the judge, providing precisely the right visual punctuation as the proceedings unfold. Mix of noble tradition and workaday drudgery is keenly evoked. And although every man is equal in the eyes of the law, there’s no denying the range of rungs on the social ladder. Some defendants plead their own cases, others have lawyers. The rhetoric a few lawyers fashion is as lame and unconvincing as the ramblings of their clients.
The government prosecutor recommends a sentence and, after deliberation, verdicts are rendered. These range from fines and probation to prison terms, expulsion or the occasional acquittal. As viewers, we hear all sides and later learn whether the sentence was harsh or lenient. The format provides a nice blend of suspense and semi-instant gratification for auds if not presumed culprits. (The Napoleonic Code leans more toward “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” than “Innocent until proven guilty.”)
A word of warning: If you’re ever double parked in Paris, make sure you don’t call a meter maid “bitch.”