Situated halfway between Raymond Depardon's 10th District Court and Frederick Wiseman's Domestic Violence, the documentary Sisters In Law surveys the justice system in a small Cameroon village, where divorce cases and wife-beating allegations get resolved in dusty offices and stone-walled courtrooms. There, lawyers, judges, and bailiffs—in this film, mostly women—try to bring modern concepts of law to a culture influenced by ancient tribal customs and the recent influence of Islam. When one husband tries to explain why he's allowed to beat his wife and keep her captive in their home, a judge snaps back, "This century is the one where human rights are respected!"
Much of Sisters In Law's drama comes from watching the individual cases move from deposition to hearing to trial, as family members and officers of the court alike insist on hearing every lurid detail of the crimes—which include the violent rape of a 9-year-old girl—and then bickering over whether the ultimate authority belongs to Allah, tradition, or the government. (Tip: Bet on the one holding the gavel.) At one point, a defendant's male lawyer gets so fed up with his client's acquiescence to the court's demands that he snaps, "Be a man!" And in the documentary's most nightmarish case, a 6-year-old's abusive guardian is sentenced to four years' hard labor for beating the girl with a coat hanger, and she heads off to jail wailing, "I didn't know I was doing a bad thing!"
Sisters In Law runs around in circles, and the cases Ayisi and Longinotto cover start to blur together after a while—which may be part of the point. But almost as fascinating as the depiction of modern Cameroon law is the snapshot of how the 21st century has found its way into rural Africa. Cameroon has always been one of the more developed African nations, but the place where Sisters In Law takes place still consists mainly of tumbledown shacks strung together chaotically. Ayisi and Longinotto frame their shots in such a way that they catch the disorganization in the foreground and the gleaming computers and televisions in the background. When one abuse victim talks about how she felt so happy when she got married, and so miserable when her husband turned out to be a louse, the echoes of a thousand TV soap operas reverberate.