Shot between 2013 and 2014, as international troops began to leave Afghanistan, “Motley’s Law” is a fascinating if somewhat shallow portrait of Kimberley Motley, an African-American-Korean wife, mother and former beauty queen who is the first and only Western litigation lawyer in Kabul. Although she might have profitably delved more deeply into her subject’s life and work, Danish helmer Nicole Horanyi certainly found a true character in the charismatic Motley, who mixes savvy and sangfroid, along with an appealingly straightforward way of speaking. Fest dates should segue into broadcast and other ancillary venues.
Tall and slender, the daughter of a military man, Motley is in command from the moment we see her arrive in Afghanistan, where she has been working since 2008. She first went to the country as part of a nine-month legal education program run by the U.S. State Department to train Afghan lawyers, noting frankly that she “came for the money” to pay off student loans. After learning how laws meant to protect the people were being underused, while gross and illegal punitive measures were being exploited, she decided to open up a private practice in Kabul. Her bread-and-butter cases involve Westerners caught in the Kafka-esque web of the Afghan legal system, where the formal judicial system, local laws and Sharia law exist confusingly side by side.
The longer Motley remains in Afghanistan, the more she gets involved in pro bono human-rights work, which she enjoys, though she notes, “It doesn’t pay the bills.” Horanyi follows her on visits to women’s prisons and juvenile detention facilities, where she dispenses free advice and offers to take on cases, when not refused access by uptight Afghan bureaucrats. Her paid work requires her to confront lazy, corrupt and ignorant officials every day, and Motley is not a woman to suffer fools lightly. No wonder she says that her blood pressure shoots up the second she returns to Afghanistan. (She tells her translator, Khalil, and her driver, Khadr, that they are part of “the Justice League,” a reference that seems to get somewhat lost in translation.)
Horanyi provides exposition through Motley’s direct address to the camera, and by filming the many interviews she gives to other journalists. As she poses for a magazine photo shoot on an Afghan rooftop in a strapless dress, we can appreciate the looks that once won her a Mrs. Wisconsin title. As she holds a scarf as a prop, the photographer asks, “Don’t you ever wear that?” “No,” replies Motley, who dresses professionally for her court appearances, but always in Western clothes.
Television footage and radio broadcasts describing Taliban attacks and suicide bombings provide a constant refrain. Although Khalil and Khadr constantly appear nervous, Motley says, “I just can’t think about it.” However, after a close encounter with death at the Serena Hotel, where she checked in a mere 15 minutes before a massacre in the lobby, she decides to move her home office to a secret address.
Horanyi contrasts Motley’s work-focused existence in Kabul with her home life as a wife and mother of three in Charlotte, N.C., where she spends approximately three months a year. She keeps photos and videos of her family on her computer and Skypes daily with her husband, Claudiare. It’s very amusing to hear her tell him, without mincing words, just what she thinks about the American Embassy and the way they dealt with the death threats she received. Later, she also offers a few choices lines about Afghanistan’s rampant corruption.
In addition to her portrait of Motley, Horanyi also shows the state of Afghanistan — where Danish forces also serve — after a decade of war. The question of what exactly, if anything, the invasion achieved haunts the film as she shows how instability lurks and threatens to destroy anything that works the minute the Americans are out.
Atmospheric lensing by Henrik Bohn Ipsen and a compelling score and sound design are standouts among the craft credits.