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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2020 Competition

Review: Courtroom 3H

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- In his first documentary, Antonio Méndez Esparza keeps exposing the realities of life in the United States, this time from a Florida family court — where emotions are always running high

Review: Courtroom 3H

Spanish filmmaker Antonio Méndez Esparza is making a return visit to the San Sebastián International Film Festival, three years after competing for the Golden Shell in the official selection with Life and Nothing More [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Antonio Méndez Esparza
film profile
]
. This year, he’s presenting a documentary entitled Courtroom 3H [+see also:
trailer
interview: Antonio Méndez Esparza
film profile
]
, which, over two hours, invites us to take a seat in a Family Reunification Court in Tallahassee (Florida).

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It’s the kind of film that might seem a little dry to viewers hoping for a lively soundtrack, polished visuals and jaw-dropping effects; you’ll find nothing of that nature here. In the first half, Méndez Esparza uses a static camera to give us an inside view of various cases and applications. Never leaving the room, we watch from a respectful distance as a motley selection of broken families pass through the court: parents desperate to get their children back and others who are placing theirs in care. At times, the subject matter can be painfully harsh.

In the second half we observe two trials, the camera’s steady gaze finally relenting to allow for a few close-ups (the gestures, the looks, the silences...) bringing on a gathering tide of emotion than never subsides. Meanwhile, the distinct personalities on either side of the bench begin to take a more central role: the conciliatory, empathetic and courteous judge and the fierce, emotionally invested lawyers and prosecutors flailing against verdicts that seem hard to accept.

Herein lies Courtroom 3H’s most remarkable achievement: by transforming each viewer into a judge, we too begin to adjudicate (consciously or otherwise) on the lives of those who traipse through the court, as it carries out its duty to decide the fate of children and young adults. Reaching a verdict is far from simple.

This complexity, which envelopes the legal system in general and our modern global society (where immigrants and new, unconventional kinds of families have become more prominent) is another aspect that Méndez is keen to underline. His work has always been sensitive and sympathetic to the lives of the least privileged, and so this foray into the documentary form is not the volte-face it may first appear. After all, in the words of James Baldwin that open the film: ‘If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country... one goes to the unprotected... and listens to their testimony.’

Courtroom 3H was produced by Spain’s Aquí y Allí Films in partnership with US company 9am Media Lab, with sales overseen by Feel Sales. It is scheduled for release in Spain this Friday, 25 September, distributed by Wanda Visión.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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