The Central Park Five - This film focuses on the notorious Central Park jogger case in New York in 1989, which saw 5 black and Latino teenagers convicted of a serious sexual assault which shook America to its core due to its sheer barbarity. In the clamour to find a culprit, or indeed culprits (despite clear evidence showing that there was only one attacker), the NYPD pinned the blame on 5 frightened children picked up in Central Park that night. These boys were forced to make a series of false confessions implicating other members of their group of friends in the horrific attack on a young, white and successful female investment banker (see her story here). A new term, 'wilding' was coined describing such depraved and inexplicable acts of criminality by rogue gangs of youths, which supposedly plagued New York at the time. The boys were convicted due to a massive public outcry, a remorseless media and a prosecutorial system which ignored gaping holes in its case. This resulted in a devastating miscarriage of justice for the 5 boys involved and their families, which also had negative repercussions on many people in deprived communities across America.
This film shows what happens to the victims of such miscarriages of justice. The boys are followed into adulthood as they battle to finally clear their names. The conclusions made by this film are vital; encompassing race relations, police and prosecutorial misconduct, the flaws of the American penal system and the sceptre of trial-by-media. The themes explored will unsettle anyone with even the slightest interest in ensuring good justice. A fascinating film, which is well made and provides an excellent overview of police and court procedure, and of life in an American prison. Well worth a watch for any law student.
The House I Live In - The case against America's war-on-drugs. Eugene Jarecki’s film does not hold its punches, it is a whirlwind of stats, troubling testimonials and devestating personal stories of those caught up in drugs, and in the war-on-drugs. It's message is clear; the costs of this war, both economic and personal, have been more devestating to American society than the drugs themselves.
Although this is an American documentary, it's message will resonate in all societies which deal with drug problems as a criminal justice matter, rather than focusing on the health and/or personal liberty of the user. The film follows the sad story of Jarecki's friend, Nannie Jeter, a black woman who helped raise him as a child, whose own family was torn apart by drugs and the system of drug law enforcement. it paints an emotive picture, but these lived experiences must be acknowledged.
A particular strength of the film is the fascinating range of experts it introduces, including David Simon (the writer of The Wire), Dr. Carl Hart (Neuroscientist at Columbia University - whose book High Price is also highly recommended), and the prolific journalist and essayist Charles Bowden. Through this, the film provides a comprehensive riposte to the received wisdom that the war-on-drugs is an essentially positive state intervention. The tragic consequences of our approach to drug controls, which this film lays out in stark detail, cannot be ignored.
One criticism, I would have preferred the more gramatically correct, 'The House in Which I Live' as the film's title. I very much hope a British remake of this excellent documentary will come about which can correct the grammar and bring attention to our own issues with the war-on-drugs.
Honor Diaries - Female genital mutilation, honour based violence and forced marriages are the focus of this film, which is made by activists looking to end these practices. Unquestionably, these are barbaric practices, the film posits. This has led some to criticise the film for presenting a narrow view, which ignores the reality that cultural matters such as these cannot easily be legislated out of existence. It is of course pleasing that the UK is actively prosecuting FGM practitioners, however there are clear structural problems with the legislation surrounding forced marriages, and can we really believe that the UK legal system can ever tackle honour based violence effectively? The film-makers will have a hard fight to end these practices in parts of the world where attitudes are somewhat more entrenched regarding obedience to family honour and changing whatever the logic is that convinces people that women and girls ought to have their genitals mutilated.
Although the range of examples used in the film is wide and practices are condemned in places with different faiths, let's be honest, most of the film looks at countries in which Islam is the predominant religion, if not at the heart of a theocratic political system. This is seemingly a problem for some, as a screening which the UB Law Society staged at the University of Bradford in October 2014 highlighted. The film draws people of all faiths together to 'bash Islam', to summarise a handful of views put forward by some in the audience. Such a view is unfair. The film is more about celebrating the good work of the activists featured; the communities they support, the sense of justice they hope to encourage and the individuals to whom they provide refuge. If people want to see this film as Islamophobic then they will, a more general view of the film at the October screening saw instead a disturbing and urgent tale of an important egalitarian argument which must be made, and hopefully won.
The University of Bradford's former Head of Law, Dr Jess Guth, has also blogged on this film and the screening.
The Lives of Others - The grey, violent and oppressive survellance state of East Germany is a superb set for a story of love, individualism and redemption. The redemption is good, it is 1984 with a happy ending. The unrelenting gloominess of Orwell is avoided when the film's Winston Smith character exposes clear weaknesses in the Stasi machine and helped to break Big Brother.
The Selfish Giant - Set on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford, this is a compelling piece of social-realism. Two young friends are taken in by an unscrupulous scrap metal dealer and try to get on, with little support other than from the little money they earn by exploiting their limited options. Eventually their naivety and petty criminality catches up with them in an altogether shocking climax.
Amazing Grace - The tale of William Wilberforce and the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. A splendid period drama, with a great Parliamentary scene to keep lawyers interested.
The Murder Trial - The trial of Nat Fraser for the murder of his wife Arlene. This is well worth a watch purely for the fact that, as Channel 4's blurb states, 'for the first time, remotely operated cameras are placed inside a British criminal court to capture a murder trial in its entirety'. The film, however, does not cover the case in its entirety, but it does neatly summarise a case which lasted a few weeks into a watchable 120 minutes. This of course has led to some criticism. Gerard O'Donovan writing in the Telegraph explains the problems of court-trial-as-entertainment;
'As TV it worked a little too well, pressing uncomfortably close to the borders of entertainment. Given the difficulty of editing so much material into such a short time span it was impossible to ignore the fact that we were being drip-fed only carefully selected moments of a very long and involved process. For the viewer what determined that selection – accuracy or the desire to tell a good story – was impossible to judge.'
The Act of Killing - A truely remarkable film from 2013, The Act of Killing documents the Indonesian state-sponsored mass-murder of those deemed undesirable by the military junta's death squads between 1965-1966. Told in the compelling and highly imaginative form of part documentary and part re-enactment, with the murderers acting out their own parts, the film is harrowing and edifying in equal measures.
Copyright: Bradford University Law Society (2017)