Can docudrama/docufiction do justice to the legal system ? by Prof Barbara Villez

Printable version Thursday 22 November 2012 Last updated at 10:01

The multiplicity of terms to describe a film composed of televised news extracts, interviews and fictional reconstitutions makes it difficult to classify Denys Granier-Deferre’s Rendez-moi justice.[i] Most docudramas, dramamentaries, drama-docs, or what the French call ‘docufictions’, often meet with scepticism in France where pure documentary is considered the noblest authoritative form of historical information. The term ‘docufiction’ is justified in Rendez-moi justice because fiction was needed to tell the story; as Derek Paget would say, there was “no other way to tell it.”[ii] No visual archives exist of the trial in this close call to judicial catastrophe because cameras have been forbidden in French courtrooms since 1954. It was therefore necessary to recreate these moments.

Photographs can be taken of the premises before court is in session and in the last ten years permission to shoot real courtroom scenes for documentaries has been granted in special circumstances. Some hybrid documentaries have resorted to short, faceless or shadowed fictional reconstitutions to help ignite viewers’ imaginations or create suspense. Such scenes, not taken seriously, do not offer valid information nor add much to the documentary; in fact they can do more harm than good. In the case of Granier-Deferre’s film, the fiction scenes translate into visual information the essence of the case.

The case involved Richard Roman and Didier Gentil, brought to trial in 1991 the brutal rape and murder four years before, of seven-year-old Céline Jourdan, in a village of « Haute-Provence ». Gentil was arrested first and confessed to raping the child, but accused Richard Roman of the murder. The investigation of the ‘juge d’instruction’[iii] led to the accusation of Gentil, and although nothing was found to incriminate Roman, he was nevertheless brought to trial as co-accused.

The media delocalized the trial from the courthouse to the headlines, calling the two men ‘monsters’, ‘killers’, clamouring for the ‘guilty to pay for their horrendous crime’. Television news repeatedly showed images of the murder scene, photographs of the smiling child, and films of the handcuffed suspects escorted to prison by the police. The result was that Céline’s family and many villagers believed both men were guilty. The trial began in a very emotional, prejudicial atmosphere. Several testimonies offered proof of bungled police work and Gentil finally admitted to ‘imagining’ Roman’s participation in the crime. The Prosecutor himself finally requested Roman’s acquittal. It is clear that without scenes of the trial, no documentary could have moved audiences to experience the tension of the trial or the emotions felt by both families (Céline’s and Roman’s). 

A similar case of false accusations in 2004 led to the Outreau judicial scandal. This is what brought director Denys Granier-Deferre and Maha Productions to deal with the Roman-Gentil case fifteen years after the trial. The film includes news clips, mostly traditional visions of comings and goings on courthouse steps, but shocking news reports of the reconstitution at the crime scene, where villagers physically attacked defense lawyers demonstrating the passions of those involved in the case. Some of the villagers were extras in the courtroom scenes and the prosecutor, a journalist and two lawyers having participated in the trial are interviewed today. These interviews create a temporal perspective. Seeing the lawyers then and now gives the viewer a sense of the time that has passed and it is all the more incredible to hear Céline’s father declare today that after all these years and despite the trial, he still believes both men were guilty. 

The mixed sources of visual information convey more authority and authenticity because they allow the viewer to experience the emotions of those involved in the case. The importance of the trial is captured through these moments. Granier-Deferre weaves the fictional scenes into the news archives and interviews so that one forgets the manoeuvres: a police lieutenant is seen in a news clip coming to court to testify and in the next shot we see a very similar looking actor enter the courtroom to be questioned. The two scenes flow together and the flow helps make the juxtaposition believable. The actress playing Céline’s mother can no longer listen to the details of violence her daughter was subjected to and as she leaves the courtroom, she faints. In the next shot, we see the real mother escorted out of court by her father to get some fresh air. At another moment the actress-mother turns her eyes away from courtroom activity and Granier-Deferre invites the audience to put themselves in her place. What does she see as she looks up above the judge: the word ‘Lex’ engraved in the wood panels of this symbolically charged, elaborate decor. Through the recreation of the trial, the audience is able to put the judicial ritual back into place. Rapid news reporting generally offers the public an impoverished vision of the legal system. This hybrid documentary-fiction form restores to the case the emotions and tension of a real trial. A dramamentary, or docufiction, need not be a patchwork of haphazard images; the articulation of fiction scenes and reality repair the weaknesses of historical archives. When justified and handled thoughtfully, viewers do not become confused by passages between reality and fiction. Their involvement is enhanced as they become aware of the plight of others

Rendez-moi justice, first aired on 27 July 2007 on France 3, has been rebroadcast several times and was selected for competition at the Rennes film festival of documentaries about law and justice.

 

 

Barbara Villez

Professor, University Paris 8

Institut des Hautes Etudes sur la Justice

CNRS, Communications et Politique

 


[i] Maha Productions 2007, broadcast on French television several times since the first airing 27 July 2007 on channel France 3. The title has a double meaning: ‘rendre justice’ is to pronounce a judgment, but ‘rendre’ is also ‘to give back’ and in this case the play on words indicates that the trial judgment re-established justice for the person who had been wrongly accused in this case.

[ii] Derek Paget, No Other Way to Tell It, Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1998.

 

[iii] A sort of examining magistrate ; a judge whose job is to examine all the evidence for and against the suspect. He does not work for the prosecution. After his ‘instruction’, he pronounces either a ‘non-lieu’ or sends the case to the prosecutor who will bring it to court. The coming reforms of Nicolas Sarkozy will replace the ‘juge d’instruction’ putting the instruction in the hands of the prosecutor’s office.

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