The 10th District Court fascinates less as a legal experience (although I’d love to watch this movie through a lawyer’s eyes) and more as an ethnographic one. (1)
English-language legal scholarship on French Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist/filmmaker Raymond Depardon’s 10e chambre – Instants d’audience (The 10th District Court: Moments of Trials) is lacking. A cursory search for articles on the film in North American law journals resulted in only one explicit reference (2). Importantly, however, that reference suggests that The 10th District Court can help one understand the role of the dossier in inquisitive legal proceedings. Depardon’s film is used to support the proposition that
The accused will know the details of and may challenge the case against her at court, but greater credibility attaches to the dossier of evidence presented by the prosecutor (seen as the product of a judicial inquiry) than that of the accused; the dossier is of central importance and is evidence on which the accused can be convicted without the necessity for live witnesses and cross-examination. (3)
But the presence of dossiers in the film is limited to the mise en scène; its function is elided. The 10th District Court is nevertheless an intriguing introduction to inquisitorial proceedings, though not the French justice system in general. This article will view its subject through the lens of one who is trained as a film scholar, but is currently enrolled in legal training.
Depardon’s fourth feature documentary of the 2000s and an official out-of-competition selection at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, The 10th District Court is a successor to the director’s 1994 Best Documentary Cesar Award-winning film Délits flagrants (Caught in the Acts). While there is some controversy even within its own production crew over whether The 10th District Court is an official “sequel” to the earlier film, its status as, at a minimum, a “logical continuation” of Délits flagrants is clear (4). Both films are seemingly passive observations of the justice system. The 10th District Court, however, has a more narrow focus than its predecessor. Rather than focusing on the wider machinations of this system, The 10th District Court focuses only on “moments” of 12 trials conducted by Madame Justice Michèle Bernard-Requin, then President of Paris’ 10th District Court, over a three month period in 2003.
At the time of its release in North America, The 10th District Court was described as “an intriguing window into the French justice system” (5). Differences between American and French procedures were noted in reviews. For instance, Wesley Morris, the critic for The Boston Globe, focusing on the role of counsel, hinted at the most pressing differences between the two systems when he suggested that “someone unfamiliar with the French courts becomes more acclimated to the proceedings and can’t help asking some serious questions. Why, for one thing, don’t the defense lawyers do more defending?” (6)
The reason for the defence attorney’s perceived lack of zealous advocacy is that zealous advocacy is not as firmly established as being of primary importance in the French legal system. The French system not only differs from the American, Canadian, British and Australian systems in that it adopts Civil Law instead of Common Law, it also differs from those nations in its adoption of inquisitive rather than adversarial proceedings. The purpose of the proceedings is to find out the truth, not to win a case. The advocate is not of primary importance. Instead, her dossier serves as the best representation.
Depardon’s system is, of course, a fiction of legal proceedings in his film. While there is no wider narrative in this film to speak of, each legal proceeding is condensed into a format that stands for a wider structure of legal proceedings. Legally, Depardon could not show a whole case. This is part of the reason he only uses “moments” of trials to establish his story. The moments he chooses to use create the fiction of self-contained proceedings. As Morris summarises, the judge “lays out the facts. They attempt to clarify. A conversation ensues. The prosecutor speaks. The defense rebuts, though not always in the form of an actual counterargument. All sides deliberate. The judge delivers her verdict.” (7) All this takes place in a short time-frame with intertitles giving us the time of initial proceedings and verdicts suggesting the period elapsed between them, but no indication of the amount of time cut from each individual meeting is given. Previous meetings are barely hinted at. In Depardon’s system, facts are established by the judge’s inquisition of the participants, but the judge’s true fact-finding mission is informed by previous review of the dossiers. Whole proceedings precede the inquisition we see onscreen. Depardon’s legal fiction nevertheless serves as an excellent introduction to the notion of inquisitive proceedings (if not an accurate reflection of them), albeit one that terrified the critic at The Boston Globe.
There is, however, a limit to the value of a law-based review of the film. Depardon’s interest within this particular film may not be the legal system, but the people caught within it. Depardon describes his topic as “justice” simpliciter, not the justice system (8). Consistent with The Boston Globe’s review, Depardon does describe his project as providing a window (but, importantly, also a mirror) into his subject matter, but he does not theorise or elaborate on the law like his critics. His purpose is not pedagogical. Just as he does not try to teach one about the French system of law, Depardon does not try to teach anyone about French law. Napoleonic Code provisions are rarely mentioned. Perhaps this is a function of Bernard-Requin’s judicial style. After all, the one time she loses her composure is when a sociologist attempts to quote and interpret the Code. She chides him: “You know a bit, but not enough”. However, it seems unlikely that Bernard-Requin rarely mentioned Code provisions herself. It is instead possible that Depardon explicitly chose moments of a less technical variety.
Unlike Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, a fellow French journalist whose Un coupable idéal (Murder on a Sunday Morning, 2001) won the Best Documentary Oscar the year before The 10th District Court was released, Depardon has no legal training. Perhaps recognising that, like the aforementioned sociologist, he does not know enough about the law, Depardon does not attempt to use film as a legal pedagogical tool. Depardon instead focuses on people, an approach that links him to Frederick Wiseman. Just as Wiseman is “a smart enough director to realize that he is not in a position to show or explain long-term illnesses”, and thus centred Hospital (1970) on “the conversations the doctors have about patients and their family” (9), Depardon recognises his own limitations in relation to the law and instead focuses on the everyday. While the subject of Wiseman’s film may have been closer to legal counsel than judicial review, both films share a focus on the everyday experiences of professionals. Depardon deals with lower court cases that Bernard Requin describes as “not serious” rather than get caught up in more noteworthy or emblematic cases (10).
Aesthetically too, Depardon’s film can be placed within Wiseman’s cinéma vérité or observational documentary tradition. Critics at the time of the film’s release compared it to Wiseman’s then-recent Domestic Violence (2001): “Dépardon, taking the approach of Frederick Wiseman (whose recent Domestic Violence films this resembles), offers no direct comment” (12). In its lack of narration, as well as its frequent use of close-ups, The 10th District Court does resemble a Wiseman film. Where Wiseman frequently pans from one individual to another during the course of a conversation, however, Depardon’s camera is largely static. This static camera is the real development in The 10th District Court that distinguishes it not only from Wiseman’s films, but also Depardon’s earlier work.
Prior to the release of The 10th District Court, Depardon said that he could be found in his films “not in the frame, not in the way of filming, but in the way of being attuned to the minute, to the fraction of a second that’s not the same as any other. Which inevitably means that it’s subjective.” (12) With The 10th District Court, however, Depardon came to recognise that one is better attuned to specific moments when a particular way of filming is invoked. With the camera facing the defendants, Depardon “chose to have a stationary view, quite tight but rather close-up, and […] realized while aiming, that we were really with the person…. We don’t know is happening around and we have only that voice, so we listen better.”
Unlike Wiseman’s High School (1968), for instance, Depardon does not break the unofficial rule of cinéma vérité that suggests one cannot use music. Sound plays an important role in the film. Boom microphones were banned in the courtroom, so Depardon was forced to place 14 stationery microphones throughout the courtroom. His equally stationery camera asks the audience primarily to focus on the words in the courtroom, but the film’s close-ups give us unique insights into the context of inquisition that stops the film from being a mere “radio show” on film.
Depardon used only two cameras to film The 10th District Court. Shot durations are rather long as Depardon continues to use the lengthy plans-sequences he preferred even as a teenage film enthusiast (13). Save for a few brief establishing shots, close-ups and medium close-ups frame almost every scene. Most individuals are only seen from the shoulders up, so we must listen to their words and try to gain extra insights from their facial expressions.
Depardon’s stationary view approaches the kind of “fly on the wall” objectivity that cinéma vérité or direct cinema filmmakers dream about. He was comfortable with allowing spontaneous action to take place without recourse to the norms of cinematic narrative prior to making The 10th District Court. But in The 10th District Court he gives up on cinematographic and photographic norms as well. Depardon is present only insofar as he selects the “moments” in the editing room. He is found there more explicitly when establishes a way of filming that is autonomous from his desire to follow an individual and keep him in frame. He no longer follows individuals’ narratives or bodies.
Importantly, this is a “film about justice”, not just particular people. In contrast to Wiseman’s lengthy treatments of individuals with whom he had previously become quite comfortable, Depardon only gives each of the accused a brief moment on screen before she or he disappears from the “narrative”. We do not meet anyone outside the courtroom. The court of justice alone creates the context of each person’s profilmic existence. At the time of The 10th District Court’s release, films about individuals pitted against the justice system were quite prevalent. Earlier, films like The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988) and Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-up, Abbas Kiarostami, 1990) played with the conventional boundaries between documentary and fiction as they demonstrated the filmmaker’s potential as advocate. In more recent times, fiction films like The Hurricane (Norman Jewison, 1999) and non-fiction films like the aforementioned Murder on a Sunday Morning created narratives around individuals taking on the legal system. Unlike those films, The 10th District Court has no hero, nor featuring anyone who is clearly wronged. Depardon claims to be an explicitly political figure, but, following in the footsteps of Wiseman and others, refuses to guide the viewer through the use of a traditional narrative. Depardon is concerned with moments, not stories. In those moments, he leads one into an encounter with a system of justice that is more difficult to pin down that than of de Lestrade et al. While Depardon certainly can introduce one to the inquisitive legal system, he refuses to give us an emblem of justice within that system.
- Wesley Morris, “In ‘Court’, a Trip Through French Society”, Boston Globe 10 February 2006: http://www.boston.com/movies/display?display=movie&id=8825.
- Jacqueline Hodgson, “The Future of Adversarial Criminal Justice in 21st Century Britain”, North Carolina Journal of International Law and Commercial Regulation vol. 35, no. 2, 2010.
- Hodgson, pp. 321-322.
- “Audience Debate at Theatrical Release”, a bonus feature included on the Koch Lorber DVD (2004) of The 10th District Court.
- Moira Macdonald, “The 10th District Court: No Royalty at This French Court”, Seattle Times 27 January 2006: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/movies/2002764116_court27.html.
- Morris. Macdonald suggested the most notable difference was that “monetary fines are proportionate to the defendant’s income”. This ignored the systematic differences between the systems of law in question, instead focusing only on sentencing, but this ignorance is forgivable. In many of the cases Depardon records, facts are not even at issue, only sentencing. Of course, the film does not show the verdict or sentence in the last two cases, so too heavy a focus on sentencing is problematic.
- “Discussion of Film Shoot by Raymond Depardon”, included as bonus feature on the Koch Lorber DVD.
- Daniel Eagen, America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Registry, Continuum, New York, 2010, p. 661.
- “Audience Debate at Theatrical Release.”
- Peter Keough, “Dixième Chambre: Instants D’Audience. The 10th District Court: Moments of Trial”, The Boston Phoenix 9 February 2006: http://thephoenix.com/Boston/Movies/3559-DIXIEME-CHAMBRE-INSTANTS-DAUDIENCETHE-10TH-DIST/.
- Miriam Rosen, “Direct to Film: Interview with Artist Raymond Depardon”, Artforum International vol. 39, no. 6, 2001, p. 137.
- Nico de Klerk, “Towards an Indirect Cinema: The Films of Raymond Depardon”, Raymond Depardon: Photographer and Filmmaker, Rotterdam, Nederlands fotomuseum, 2005, p. 36.
10e chambre – Instants d’audience/The 10th District Court: Moments of Trials (2004 France 105 mins)
Prod Co: France 2 Cinéma/Palmeraie et Désert/Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC)/Canal+ Prod: Claude Morice, Claudine Nougaret, Adrien Roche Dir: Raymond Depardon Phot: Justine Bourgade, Raymond Depardon, Fabienne Octobre Ed: Simon Jacquet, Lucile Sautarel