When Your Film Protagonist Finds You

Posted on March 8, 2018
Judge Kholoud and ITVS-funded filmmaker Erika Cohn

To celebrate International Women's Day, we sat down with ITVS-funded filmmaker Erika Cohn to discuss the unexpected joy in meeting Judge Kholoud and the project that became The Judge

ITVS: How did The Judge come to be?

Erika Cohn: While I was on a shooting hiatus with my last film, In Football We Trust, I received a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship in Israel/Palestine. There I taught film, mentored local filmmakers, assisted NGOs launch media advocacy projects, and continued my post-graduate research in Islamic feminism at Hebrew University. One day, a dear friend and colleague invited me to attend a Shari’a law reform meeting in Ramallah.

I was welcomed into a large conference room filled with the images of Arafat throughout the years hanging in old picture frames, and seated at a table surrounded by men in tarbooshes (hats that judges and sheikhs wear). Then Judge Kholoud walked in and everyone stood to greet her. I was immediately struck by her presence – her confidence – her command of the room. I wanted to know more. Who was this woman? What was her story?

Though my Arabic comprehension was limited, I listened intently to a discussion about Palestine’s legal challenges, issues of domestic violence, regulations surrounding polygamy and the importance of raising the marriage age. I began to grapple with the complexities of law in Palestine. Given the political complexity and varying forces at play, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem and Gaza all have different laws. Therefore, a ruling made in one territory may not be applicable in another. (Later in the edit, I struggled with how much legal and historical context viewers might want or need, which was ultimately decided after a series of test screenings hosted by the IDA and SF Rough Cuts).

As Judge Kholoud passionately spoke about how women are disproportionally impacted by these inconsistencies and addressed the difficulties in creating a uniform legal system, I wondered why and how she decided to become a Shari’a judge. Judge Kholoud and I were introduced at the end of the meeting and I was moved by her charisma and personal story. After spending her first years as an attorney representing women who were survivors of domestic violence, Kholoud felt she could best catalyze change in the Shari’a courts, where familial cases are adjudicated. She then turned to the Shari’a text to prove that women could be judges and began studying for the judicial exams. I remember asking her how she felt about the mistreatment of women under Shari’a…to which she responded, the problem isn’t with the Shari’a, it is with the interpretation (or rather misinterpretation).  

I have always been fascinated with how law is interpreted – how power, economics and/or status can influence implementation. I am captivated by the intersect and tension between religion, culture and identity. I am drawn to narratives about strong women. Kholoud’s story stuck with me and I felt that her experiences might invoke a more nuanced understanding of Shari’a, challenge rapidly increasing global Islamophobia and highlight positive advancements for women by women in the Middle East, which are often uncovered or ignored by mainstream media.

Upon learning I was a filmmaker, Kholoud immediately expressed enthusiasm in making a film about her journey. She hoped that sharing her story would inspire other women and girls throughout the Muslim world to pursue leadership roles in their communities, despite cultural and/or traditional norms. Thus, The Judge was born. I immediately called mentor and Executive Producer, Geralyn Dreyfous, to tell her about this encounter who encouraged me to pursue the project and was an invaluable producing partner throughout the journey.

How did you gain access? Did you have any challenges in the field? 

The first challenge was approaching the Qadi al-Quda (Chief Justice) to gain access to the Shari’a courts. After numerous meetings and proposals (which were later repeated every time a new Qadi al-Quda was appointed…3 times in total), I was granted full access. I believe this was only achievable given our team’s non-threatening presence, my gender, and compact camera kit.

Within the courts, we unobtrusively captured proceedings with GoPros and small DSLR cameras. When people would come into court, I would briefly describe the project, then ask for permission to film or record their voices. Because of the sensitive nature of the proceedings, some chose not to participate or agreed to participate [only] if they could remain anonymous. Cinematographer Amber Fares and I visualized cases that occurred when we weren’t filming or when it was necessary to preserve individuals’ anonymity via obscured recreations, primarily shot with a moving slider camera, in variable focus with extreme close-ups and observational wides.

What were some of the greatest editing or post-production challenges?

The Judge was shot over a 5-year time period, only 6 months of which I was living in Jerusalem or Ramallah. The remainder of the shoots took place in month long increments, every other year and a couple of pick up shots towards the end. Not living in the same place as Judge Kholoud throughout the project’s entirety was difficult, given that this is a cinema verité film. In addition, as the years went by, our cameras upgraded from the T3i to the C100 to the C300. Editors Sara Maamouri and Ken Schneider masterfully played with time and continuity, seamlessly and creatively addressing these challenges. In the edit, we sorted through hundreds of hours of footage, ultimately interweaving intimate verité footage from Kholoud’s home life and unprecedented drone aerials of the West Bank, painting a unique and vivid portrait of Palestine’s raw beauty.

Music plays a key role in the The Judge. Kholoud embodies what jazz music means to me – she resists oppression, asserts her right to equality and does so boldly. I wanted to take that feeling and voice it in a musical score that incorporated Middle Eastern music elements but didn’t orientalize or exoticize the film. I couldn’t find temp music that conveyed the right feeling…therefore our early cuts felt disjointed and conventional. Working on a shoestring budget, composer Omar Fadel and I worked together to construct 10 minutes of music with a unique, organic aesthetic of piano, cello, guitar and pedal steel. I used the stems from this music suite to craft the temp music, which created a much more authentic feel and helped inform the remainder of the edit. Once we received funding from ITVS, Omar began scoring the film, which became the soul and heartbeat of The Judge.

Funding a project like this can be complicated, can you tell us about your experience? 

Along the way, there were some major wake up calls and challenges…one being the search for financing. Throughout the first five years I cannot count the number of times we heard “no,” nor the amount of grant rejections we received, including four from ITVS, who later became a co-production partner. Each time we examined the feedback, made adjustments and eventually our persistence paid off. Ultimately, the time it took to receive full financing was a benefit, as it provided us with a deeper character driven story, shot over an extended period of time. We were blessed with access and an incredibly passionate, talented team, in addition to early private donors and foundations who believed in the film’s vision.

Where can people see the film and what’s next?

Judge Kholoud’s resilience and determination greatly impacted all of us and will encourage others around the world to persevere through adversity – in asserting legal rights, achieving gender justice and challenging cultural and traditional norms. I believe her story reflects a collective struggle for women’s control over their bodies, economic welfare, custodial rights, and marital status. Finally, I hope The Judge leaves viewers with a greater insight into Shari’a law and strong imagery of powerful Muslim women, while illuminating some of the universal conflicts in the domestic life of Palestine.

It is a tremendous honor to finally share the film with the world after its festival premiere at TIFF and subsequent festival screenings at IDFA, DOCNYC, CPH:DOX among other. Visit thejudgefilm.com/screenings for screening schedule. The Judge will be included on Independent Lens.

Visit thejudgefilm.com.

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