Madrid-born director Antonio Méndez Esparza has been living in Tallahassee, Florida for the best part of eight years, where he combines a job as a professor teaching film at Florida State University with directing.
Having already proven himself in fiction, making “Here and Now” a Mexican immigrant tale that won the Cannes Critics’ Award in 2012 and “Life & Nothing More” about a struggling African-American family in Florida, which won the John Cassavetes Award at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards, his first documentary, “Courtroom 3H,” is playing in competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival.
“When I made ‘Life and Nothing More’ in 2017, one of the moving aspects that I didn’t explore enough was the court system,” says Esparza. “I am very intrigued by juvenile courts.”
The Tallahassee Unified Family Court (Florida) specializes in judicial cases involving minors. It uses the Unified Family Court Model, whereby families get summoned when accused of abuse, abandon or negligence concerning children. The objective of this court is to reunite families as quickly and safely as possible.
This way of doing things is unique, says Esparza, “It’s a court where it’s about rehabilitation when usually the court system is more punitive in the U.S.”
Before he called action, Esparza had to overcome personal fear. “I was always afraid of documentaries,” he says, “because I thought docs could hurt people to a certain extent. You deal with real people who can be offended by a movie.”
He spent the best part of 18 months visiting the court. “The decision of making the film was foolish, and I don’t think that I was certain of what I was doing or if the movie would be finished.”
But his confidence grew as “I started seeing the dedication of the legal participants and the range of different reactions from the families to their situations.”
The sessions were cathartic: “At that time in my life, my personal life was crumbling, I was going through a divorce and custody battle. Part of my survival was to make this movie and reflect on my own relationship with children and responsibilities. You start to understand your faults and poor judgement. In the defendants, I saw myself.”
For two months, they filmed hearings and six trials eventually using two. “We turned the court into a studio, leaving our equipment borrowed from university overnight. My students helped. There was a total of 30 shooting days.”
The documentary is divided into hearings and trials. “The hearings are public, and you have access to them,” explains Esparza. “The trials by Florida statue of protection for minors are closed. However, the judge, because of his belief in transparency and the First Amendment, agreed to us using the footage.”
The stories are heartbreaking family tales recounted by lawyers, caregivers and parents. A quote from James Baldwin served as a guiding principle: “If one really wants to know how justice is administered in a country, one goes to the unprotected and listens to their testimony”.
With his concern about documentaries overcome, Esparza is working on another non-fiction taking place in Florida. At the same time, he’s also planning to adapt Spanish writer Juan Jose Millas’ novel “Que Nadie Duerma” (Let No One Sleep).