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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2020 Competition

Antonio Méndez Esparza • Director of Courtroom 3H

“When I find myself in a situation I didn’t expect, I try to embrace it.”

by 

- Madrid-born director Antonio Méndez Esparza, now settled in the USA, returns with a new bid for the Golden Shell — Courtroom 3H, a documentary set in a Floridian family court

Antonio Méndez Esparza • Director of Courtroom 3H
(© Jorge Fuembuena/Festival de San Sebastián)

Three years ago, we had the good fortune to chat with Antonio Méndez Esparza during his last trip to the San Sebastián International Film Festival, toting Life and Nothing More [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Antonio Méndez Esparza
film profile
]
. Now he’s back in the official section with Courtroom 3H [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Antonio Méndez Esparza
film profile
]
, his first foray into the documentary genre, produced, as always, by Pedro Hernández from Aquí y Allí Films. We jumped at the chance to catch up with him again on a fine sunny morning in San Sebastián.

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Cineuropa: After winning the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for your last fiction film, your next move was to make a documentary — rather than doing what a lot of filmmakers do when they scoop a big prize, and shooting for a superhero franchise...
Antonio Méndez Esparza: The thing is, superheroes don’t really appeal to me ... For now, anyway. I think they’re covered (laughs). Although the family judge that appears in my film is virtually a superhero himself — he’s a great man, although fallible, like everyone. He’s someone who believes in the system and understands that it has its problems and flaws. He was also willing to lay himself open on screen, and I have to say I really admire that. I tried to make sure the film wasn’t just some wide-eyed tribute, but I did want to show that this was a man with real character.

Watching the film, we can't help but put ourselves in his shoes, and we start to doubt our own judgements, particularly given the complexity of the cases shown...
Absolutely — these are incredibly complex cases. He told me that there have been cases when he had to make very difficult decisions, because Florida still has the death penalty. He’s been working in the judicial system for 20 years, and he spent some of that time as a criminal judge, when the verdicts carried an enormous weight — even more so than in the family court we see here.

Had you met him before, through your previous film?
Yes, through Life and Nothing More, but like any fiction film, you’re very limited. In his courtroom, I could see that the reality was much more nuanced, and I wanted to embrace that whole vast tapestry, reams and reams of cases, that makes reality so much more chaotic than what we often see on screen. I’ve always tried to steer clear of the doctrine of fiction and embrace reality as I found it, with varying degrees of success. In this case there isn’t even a plot — we just set up the camera and tried to forget about it.

And with the footage you filmed... how did you go about creating a coherent structure for the film?
It was incredibly complicated and, in the end, we split it into two halves. In the first section, we see all the preparatory work, with numerous cases at various stages of the process where people are taking on the state with the odds either for them or against them. The second half is all about conflict — the morning before the battle and the courtroom climax itself. In the first half we tried to create a certain emotional coherence, and in the second we decided to focus on just two cases. After two months of filming we only had five trials, since so many of them are settled out of court. Even so, we saw a lot of parents lose custody of their children...

The people we encounter in Courtroom 3H — did they have to assign the rights to their image?
The children were all pixelated, unless their parents had given us permission to show their faces. We were covered by the first article of the constitution, on the freedom of the press. These trials are public and open to the media.

The lawyers and prosecutors also become central characters...
Yes, they’re basically the stars of the film. That happened naturally as we were filming, because to begin with we intended to focus more on the families. We soon got to know which ones were most committed and which would fight the hardest: that’s where the artifice of cinema comes in.

Presumably that’s why the camera starts off at a distance and gradually draws closer to their faces towards the end...
As we were filming, we realised that we needed an alternative approach to the lawyers. For the trials themselves, we had to position the camera differently, and we tried to keep an open mind and work with what came up. That’s why the end of the film is more dramatic.

Was making a courtroom drama a dream of yours?
In Courtroom 3H, there are some aspects that are closely influenced by those films and others that are less so. That said, there are courtroom dramas on TV that I never could stand, because they’re the polar opposite of a conversation. On the other hand, there is a tradition in cinema of the lawyer drama, which I also wanted to avoid, and another that portrays lawyers as shameless creeps. Personally, when I find myself in a situation I didn't expect, I try to embrace it — especially when it goes against the grain of commercial cinema.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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