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Non-Review Review: Ni juge, ni soumise (So Help Me God)

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

So Help Me God is a very strange film, in that it is very difficult to imagine how exactly this documentary got made.

Anne Gruwez is a judge working in Brussels. As part of her role in the criminal justice system, she not only supervises on-going investigations, but also hear minor cases on something approaching a one-on-one basis. So Help Me God follows roughly a year in the life of Gruwez, splitting its attention between her on-going stewardship of a cold case murder investigation and the more routine cases that she hears on a daily basis. What emerges is a fascinating and compelling examination of the Belgian legal system.

So Help Me God has an amazing amount of access to the workings of the criminal investigations overseen by and the criminal cases heard by Anne Gruwez. No faces are blurred, no voices are disguised. There is no artificial barrier created between the audience and the subjects, no attempt to disguise identities. In many ways, So Help Me God feels very much like a particularly eccentric workplace documentary, with little sense of any red tape or restrictions upon the production team. It is a testament to directors Yves Hinant and Jean Libon that they were able to construct such a candid film.

So Help Me God is fascinating and engaging viewing, even if there is a sense of something decidedly less quirky and amusing resting somewhere beneath its polished and charming exterior.

Anne Gruwez is a character. She is obviously a real person, but she also feels larger than life. She works in a very interesting job, one which provides a window into a wide variety of compelling stories. However, she is also fascinating of herself. It seems like it would be worthwhile to spend time with Gruwez, whether in casual conversation or even as a shadow following her through her day. Gruwez is the perfect subject for a documentary like this, standing out just enough to engage the audience without overwhelming a narrative that is intriguing on its own terms.

So Help Me God provides an intriguing portrait of its subject, humanising and developing her beyond her function as a representative of the country’s legal system. So Help Me God revels in the little details of Gruwez’s character: the ever-present bottle of Perrier on her desk, and the six-pack in the closet; the blue Citroën 2CV that serves to ferry justice around Brussels; the trays of sweets that she keeps by the door to welcome guests. Gruwez is a very frank and very open conversationalist, expressive and emotive in how she speaks.

The portrait that So Help Me God paints of Gruwez presents an interesting contrast to the stereotype of the law as a cold and faceless institution, the stock depiction of the criminal justice system as weighed down by bureaucracy and red tape. There is something very engaging and exciting in this idea, in presenting a real-life representative of the criminal justice system as a flesh-and-blood human being rather than operating at a remove from her. So Help Me God largely eschews the stock iconography of legal narratives; Gruwez is rarely seen in a robe, and identities are rarely overtly concealed.

Indeed, the scenes set in Gruwez’s office almost seem like something from a gentle mockumentary; The Office, but with criminal guest stars. The basic arc of So Help Me God focuses on Gruwez’s involvement in directing and overseeing an investigation into the murder of a prostitute years ago, but the film comes to life in the shorter segments; the smaller cases interspaced between the larger arc, wherein Gruwez deals with petty offenses and assesses the guilt of those sitting before her.

There is a lot of humanity in these exchanges, suggesting a more compassionate and engaged form of criminal justice than that usually depicted on screen. Two sequences in particular stand out, mostly for the low-key and almost casual manner in which they approach the application of the law. In one point, Gruwez discusses prostitution with a specialist who works in bondage; the judge amazed and intrigued by the mechanics of such practice, demonstrating a very relatable curiousity. Later on, Gruwez gently sits with a woman who has committed a horrible crime, genuinely concerned about her wellbeing.

That said, there are some aspects of So Help Me God that feel a little awkward or uncomfortable. One of the documentary’s recurring themes is the challenges facing Belgian society in trying in integrate immigrant communities. Indeed, it often feels like the country’s growing Muslim population is a recurring anxiety for the film. There are a number of recurring establishing shots of heavily armed soldiers patrolling the streets, while one convicted criminal vows loudly to go and join “ISIS” and Gruwez sternly lectures another on the importance of assimilating into Belgian society.

Many of the petty criminals who sit before Gruwez are members of particular ethnic communities, and Gruwez is very blunt in her assessment of the practices of such groups. Some of this is undoubtedly frank “telling it how it is”, but some of it also feels like crass generalisation. So Help Me God often seems to be laughing along at the boldness of Gruwez’s observations, rather than engaging with them critically or even just presenting them objectively. There are certain points at which the movie almost seems to play these awkward beats for laughs.

Still, this is a minor issue with an otherwise engaging and intriguing documentary, an interesting story told in a compelling manner, one that finds a refreshingly human angle on a system that can often seem cold and aloof.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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