A festival of law in film
John Cooper QC discusses this year's rise in high impact law related films
There are endless ways by which we receive information concerning pressing issues of the moment. Film making, since its invention, has always been one such way, and looking at the subjects into which film makers choose to invest their skills is one litmus test as to the perceived priorities of society.
This year's BFI London Film Festival has been particularly focused upon what keeps us awake at night when it comes to law and order, the rule of law, and its violations, both nationally and internationally. A trawl of over 300 films, shown over a period of 12 days, is all any politician has to do to tune into what matters to people in 2016.
Domestically, there is a raft of movies exposing the breakdown of the UK's penal system. No one can doubt that these particular film makers have hit the target as, in the same week the films are being shown, prison officers are in the news saying that the increase in violence and suicide in prisons is now beginning to affect the foundations of a safe and effective penal system.
Two films from Ireland, The Young Offenders and A Date for Mad Mary, deal in different ways with the potential waste of young lives in and out of prison. The former approaches the problem of youth crime with sensitivity, following the hapless criminal lifestyle of two 24-year-olds, while the later beautifully but painfully depicts the fight a young woman undertakes upon release from prison, and the pitiful lack of support for those trying to rehabilitate themselves.
The festival's films also take an international perspective surrounding state punishment and, in the case of a movie from Singapore, capital punishment. Apprentice takes as its lead a young man who becomes the student to a state executioner. The stringent regime of capital punishment within that country is brought into full focus by this hard-hitting film, not only concentrating on the prisoner, but also the consequences for their families.
Of course, movies produced over the last 12 months cannot help but have been influenced by international crises around the world. The War Show really is the 'must see' movie on this, if only for the fact the documentary began filming right at the beginning of the Syrian crisis and did not stop. Beginning with peaceful protests across Syria in 2011, we then watch contemporaneous footage of that country's tragic fall into bloody armed conflict.
Immediately after watching this, get hold of the damning Australian documentary Chasing Asylum, as the relatively unknown and inhumane policy of successive Australian governments towards refugees is uncompromisingly disclosed.
Again, film producers have not been blind to the growth of racial conflict over the last year and a series of movies expose the inequality under the law which has led to the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. This year's seminal film on the issue must be The 13th which takes the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution '“ that no one will be imprisoned for a crime unless duly convicted by the courts '“ as its starting point. From then on we see a catalogue of interviews
which establishes rampant institutional racism in America's criminal justice system.The films mentioned here simply scratch the surface of those made during what can only be described as an exceptional year for high-impact law-related movies.
John Cooper QC practises from 25 Bedford Row