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Review: Judges Under Pressure


- Kacper Lisowski’s angry look at Poland’s judicial crisis occasionally mumbles, but certainly doesn’t hold back

Review: Judges Under Pressure

Kacper Lisowskis WatchDocs opener Judges Under Pressure [+see also:
interview: Kacper Lisowski
film profile
, which premiered at IDFA barely one month ago, is an imperfect film, and understandably so – it’s an emotional reaction to what’s happening in Poland, where the government is seemingly doing its best to undermine judicial independence, rather than a measured take on the events that have already settled in. Once it hits its stride – and decides not to explain everything – it flies by, aided tremendously by an energetic, toe-tapping soundtrack that gives it a more mischievous vibe than one would have the right to expect.

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When singer Maria Peszek states in “Sorry, Poland” a song featured in the film – that she wouldn’t give her country even one drop of blood, there is no need to ask what she means. For the last few years, after its swerve into right-wing populism, Poland has been making headlines with terrifying regularity. The threat to its rule of law, just like the near-total abortion ban, has resulted in mass protests, and Judges Under Pressure is, predictably, a one-sided tale, with pretty much any scene featuring the ruling Law and Justice party, or their supporters, painting them as idiots, villains or both. Which just adds to the general feeling that this is an angry film, about angry people, just seconds away from repeating that immortal refrain yelled out by Howard Beale years ago.

That this doc will be better understood in Poland is certain, but when faced with such a complex topic, Lisowski does what needs to be done: he follows some very engaging protagonists. The likes of judge Igor Tuleya are just, for lack of a better way to put it, fun to watch. A bundle of nerves dependent on nicotine like some depend on air, yet always ready to talk, he proves that any mentions of “judicial aristocracy”, as some politicians like to repeat here, are pointless. These are all pretty normal people, suddenly unable to do their jobs, and driven to madness by bureaucracy, online attacks (some allegedly masterminded by the Ministry of Justice itself) and the constant fear that they might not be able to provide for their families. “It drags on, no matter the charges,” someone says. Then again, whenever someone mentions Kafka’s The Trial, you already know things are bad.

The idea to ask some of the young protesters what, in their opinion, the law is actually for, doesn’t quite cut it – with answers like “protecting those who need protection and support” and “hearing those without a voice”, it feels like a school assignment. There are quotes by Montesquieu and Atticus Finch, too, but there is no need for such embellishments – not when the current president openly argues that “our justice system must be fixed” and his supporters proceed by singing out his name, Andrzej Duda, like it’s Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Which, frankly, needs to be seen to be believed, so bring on YouTube.

It’s almost odd that one needs to “humanise” judges in order to make people care, to hear them say they are not “cyborgs”, and have emotions and feelings. But it’s true that there has always been something sheltered about their occupation, their black robes and their power. Seeing them interact with mere mortals, also at rock festivals, of all places, or even asking for help, feels strange – yet clearly, this is the way to go. Lisowski’s film follows the same advice, coming as close as possible and paying more attention to their individual struggles than all the facts and figures. There are small wins here, like having international judges support their fight – also because quite a few have experienced at first hand what happens when this kind of freedom is taken away (hello, Turkey). But when someone starts wondering aloud if they already live in an authoritarian country, the conclusions are, well, not optimistic. Sorry, Poland.

Judges Under Pressure, written by Iwona Harris and Kacper Lisowski, was produced by Poland’s Lollipop Films, which is also handling the world sales.

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