It would be nice if justice was always just. But just for whom? Whom is it meant to serve? Ideally, it’s meant to serve the governed. In a democratic society, a majority agrees to the laws by which they’ll be governed, and it’s up to judges to make sure that those laws provide protection for all citizens. But what happens in a society divided between citizens and people living in an occupied territory? This is one of the key issues surrounding the complicated Israel-Palestine conflict. Rather than go directly for the audience’s emotions and strong opinions regarding this decades long battle, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz‘ documentary The Law in These Parts brings about its emotional impact via an academic argument. Despite unnecessary apologies about his filmmaking, Alexandrowicz still manages to clearly lay out a thoughtful argument and raise difficult questions about the perversion of justice and the pervasiveness of denial.
Divided into five chapters, The Law in These Parts goes through the legal history of Israel’s occupation of Arab territories. Alexandrowicz interviews a handful of judges who were responsible not for implementing the justice of a democratic society, but for carrying out the orders of a military commander. Only judges who presided over occupation-related cases are interviewed, and as Alexandrowicz notes, “This film is not about the people who broke the law. It’s about the people who wrote the law.” The chapter structure does a fantastic job of explaining the various and shocking ways the laws were written and constructed to protect a democratic society at the cost of denying justice to another society.
The Law in These Parts uses an academic approach to question the purpose of justice, how justice functions, and most impressively, how those who write the laws struggle to justify their own wrongdoing. Alexandrowicz implicitly acknowledges that there are fundamental laws that can be violated by any society. Furthermore, the justices being interviewed can’t admit the existence of these laws even though it’s clear they know it to be true. But even removing the vague notions of ineffable rights, the judges still dance around the fact that they cherry-picked laws from the Geneva Convention, the Hague Conventions, and even from the Ottoman Empire. A phrase repeated by more than one judge is “History will judge me.” Alexandrowicz, respectfully and professionally asks, “When will history do that?” The former judges have no answer.
It’s fascinating to watch how the judges have deluded themselves. Some are clearly so blockheaded that their responses are comical. For some of the judges, there’s a pause and a brief flash across their face where they realize that maybe what they did was wrong. But then that moment passes and they’ll snap back by saying that the question is theoretical and not worthy of an answer. Some will happily answer the question by saying that they simply were following the interests of commanding officers or political players like Ariel Sharon for the good of national security. And if that’s their excuse, then they weren’t really judges. They were replaceable functionaries who placed a rubber stamp on cases.
Alexandrowicz is able to convey these ideas but he makes odd detours to apologize for the documentary form. He obviously wants to show the audience that he’s attempting to be transparent as opposed to his interview subjects who obfuscated the law in order to meet political ends. The academic arguments can also be a bit dry and lessen the drama of the historical events. But Alexandrowicz deserves immeasurable credit for boldly comparing Israeli policy regarding the occupied territories to the treatment of Jews by the Germans in the Holocaust. The comparison doesn’t extend to ethnic cleansing or world domination, but Alexandrowicz selects some key black and white footage from the Israeli occupation that’s clearly meant to recall the footage of German treatment of Jews in the run up to the ghettos and the death camps. Without ever explicitly mentioning or showing footage from the Holocaust, Alexandrowicz makes a strong and subtle point when he shows how Arabs who rebeled against the occupation were labeled terrorists (and some were absolutely terrorists, but others earned the label for throwing rocks or distributing flyers), but Jews who rebelled against the Germans were labeled heroes. The Law in These Parts isn’t calling the Israeli government or the judges Nazis, but it does point out how some of the deplorable actions that spurred the creation of the State of Israel are now the policy of the State of Israel.
This is a cruel irony, but the great tragedy presented by The Law in These Parts isn’t the civil and human rights violations. It’s how judges twisted the law to change the definition of “justice” until it met the satisfaction of commanders and politicians. But the most pathetic, infuriating, and deplorable aspect of these men was how they justified their actions. They claim that history will be their judge. The Law in These Parts is the trial for these men, and History has made its ruling. The verdict is “Guilty.”
For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: