‘The Judge’ director Erika Cohn documents first female judge in Palestinian court

Erika Cohn’s new documentary, The Judge, is about the first female judge of a Palestinian Shari’a court in the West Bank. The Emmy award-winning filmmaker talks about why she filmed the documentary, challenges with the film and what she wants people to take away from it. She hopes to show the film in Palestine later this year.

It will also broadcast on PBS’ on Independent Lens Series.

Stephanie A. Taylor (SAT): What was the defining moment that had you make this documentary?

Erika Cohn (EC): I had been on shooting hiatus with my last film, In Football We Trust, and had an opportunity to peruse a rotary ambassadorial scholarship in Israel, Palestine, where I was teaching film and working on a media advocacy and media literacy. I also had the opportunity to pursue my postgraduate research in in Islamic Feminism at Hebrew University. One day a dear friend and colleague invited me to an Islamic reform meeting that was happening at the Palestinian Authority Headquarters. I walked into this meeting where issues of raising the marriage age, domestic violence and polygamy were being addressed. All of a sudden Judge Kholoud walked in, the first woman judge to be appointed to any of the religious courts in the Middle East. She had this unbelievable presence, a kind of command of the room. I listened to her speak in this room about how Palstatine legal challenges disproportionately affect women. I found myself more drawn into her story and wanted to know more.

After the meeting (we met face to face) I told her that I was a filmmaker, had studied Islamic Feminism and was continuing to do research. She invited me into her courtroom, that was when I really pinched myself. Judge Kholoud is an incredible combination of a mediator of a counselor of a lawyer of a judge who’s trying to work out issues between family members that are very similar to the issues we have in the U.S. I felt like Kholoud’s experiences can kind of destigmatize Shari’a Law and could really present positive imagery in local women that we don’t often get to see in Western Media and I felt like her experiences could also really challenge some of the rapidly increasing Islamophobia. When I told her I wanted to make a film she told me, ‘This was amazing because I wanted to find a way to amplify my story to inspire women and girls around the world to take leadership roles in their communities despite whatever cultural norms may exist and also show the world how strong Palestinian women are.’ So together we began embarking on this journey in 2012, and here we are today!

SAT: Why did it take six years to make the film?

EC: This is a Cinema Verite film following Kholoud’s life over a long period of time. Part of the reason it took so long was because so many things happened in her life and the question is always ‘When do you stop filming?’ In following someone’s life or documenting someone’s life, our lives never stop. There was a distinct moment when we felt, as a team, we had a film here and this is an incredible beautiful art and we decided to stop filming at that point. Also, there were a lot of challenges along the way too. But combined with funding challenges and also the longevity of following Kholoud’s life we ended up with a six year process. I think all of the challenges actually made us get more creative about telling the story, and I’m very very very proud of the film that we have. I don’t know if I would’ve changed anything.

SAT: What other challenges were there?

EC: I lived in the Middle East for seven months when I first started this project. So, it was a lot easier when I was there on the ground everyday and could be with Kholoud at her home or at her court filming some of the other interviews. The ups and downs of Kholoud’s life continued. Being so many miles away, in the U.S. that was very difficult. When things were happening, I couldn’t fly out. We also had an amazing team on the ground who was able to document things toward the end as events were unfolding. And I think in addition to that you see three different chief justices who are the head of the judicial system. Each time a new person was appointed, we would have to request access all over again. It’s a process of waiting to meet with each individual, to explain the process over and over again, I would say that was definitely a challenge.

SAT: What do you want people to take away from the film?

EC: I hope that people are as inspired by Kholoud’s story as I am. I feel like this really presents imagery of a strong list of women that we’re not able to see and I feel like it presents a nuanced understanding of Shari’a Law. I hope people come away with imagery and an understanding that they haven’t previously had.

SAT: Tell me your experience on being a female filmmaker.

EC: When we see seven, nine, 13 percent of directors are women, or the specifics keep changing based on the year, that is not acceptable. I think that we as filmmakers have to play an active role in changing that. We have hiring power. We use our hiring power to make that change. We create mentorship opportunities. We demand that we have a presence. I think that there’s so much attention that’s been placed on this issue in the past several months, that’s not enough. We need to continue speaking about this and working actively to change it.

© Stephanie A. Taylor (4/10/18) FF2 Media

Photos courtesy of The Judge

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Stephanie A. Taylor is a multi-award-winning journalist whose accolades span three publications including FF2. Some of her favorite articles she's written are Emma Cooper’s ‘The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Lost Tapes, FACETS Honors Chaz Ebert F2F at Screen Gems 2022 Benefit, and Dorothy Arzner’s ‘Merrily We Go to Hell’ Discusses Modern Day Problems. She currently lives in Chicago. Reading, writing, and watching old films are some of her many passions.
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