How many of us would brave working in Kabul, Afghanistan? Would money to pay off college loans, a house mortgage, and the support of family back in America lure and keep you there despite assassination threats? It did Kimberley Motley who went to Kabul in 2008 as part of a nine-month legal education program run by the U.S. State Department to train Afghan lawyers. Seizing an opportunity, albeit fraught with danger, the intrepid attorney decided to stay and open up her own practice to defend foreigners, Americans and others against a punitive, often unjust third world legal system.
In her documentary Motley’s Law, Nicole Horanyi chronicles the hazardous and stressful life of Kimberley Motley during her time as the only Western lawyer licensed to practice law in Kabul. It is an incredible snapshot of a female defense attorney who also takes on pro bono cases to help female Afghanis fight for their rights.
Horanyi provides an insider’s sketch of how Motley (between 2013 and 2014) navigates the convoluted, corrupt, and arcane judicial system composed of the official court of Afghanistan, interlocking local courts, and the tribal court which practices Sharia law. The filmmaker with on the ground immediacy chronicles Motley’s journey as the first and only female lawyer to meet with various bureaucrats in the Attorney General’s Office and in the prisons as she effects releases for clients who have suffered miscarriages of justice. Horanyi even briefly films Motley defending a client at a Pashtun jirga, which is a traditional assembly of leaders that make decisions by consensus, according to the teachings of Islam.
Horanyi has styled her documentary in an ad hoc fashion that keeps us on the hot seat with Motley. Breaking down the fourth wall, her subject speaks directly to the camera and provides a journalistic perspective. At other times there are noted silences as Horanyi shoots Motley in profile or from the back; for example, walking up to a prison where her client is incarcerated. These visuals take in the panorama of Kabul as the secondary subject of the film and they include footage of the city, the intense backdrop where Motley does her work, and her restful time with family back home in the U.S. The contrast between Kabul and the U.S. gives us a feel for the extremes of Motley’s life: in Kabul – the bleak settings, rubble, and bombed out areas, those vast, desolate places and desert hues with no lush vibrant plant life for there is little post-war restoration. In the U.S. we visit her beautiful home, with suburban amenities, lush grounds, and serene streets.
Horanyi’s filming is at ground level. It reflects Motley’s perspective and is symbolic and thematic. We walk in her steps as a visceral experience and fear for her as a result. Film angles are stark. Motley is the central subject of the documentary about courage, the necessity to seek opportunity in foreign lands despite hazards because of the payoff. The film highlights the sacrifices a mother and wife must make to supplement family income: sacrificing the comforts of a Western lifestyle, the warmth of family, relaxation away from extreme tension, the freedom of movement to go anywhere one chooses. The greatest hurdle for this former beauty queen is to overcome the cultural dispossession of everything that is secure and familiar in exchange for that which is strange, uncertain, and personally numbing.
The rough cinematography is effective. We are rapt as we anticipate danger lurking at every corner, though her assistant and translator, Khalil, and her driver, Khadr, are constantly by her side. With suicide bombers blowing themselves up in various parts of the city and with international forces being downsized toward the eventuality of a complete pull out, both men are nervous. Their upset comes at the outset of the film when they discuss how Kimberley’s house had been grenaded while she was visiting her husband and children in the US. Their fear is omnipresent throughout the film.
To comfort the men and herself, Motley verbally anoints them as part of “the Justice League.” She teasingly evokes the concept of their being like “superheroes.” It is an encouragement to mitigate the fear of violence which encompasses their lives. Through understatement and Motley’s “matter-of-fact” attitude about it, Horanyi makes palpable the threat of harm, especially when Motley’s team drives through chaotic, dusty streets, past military checkpoints and potential terrorists to visit the wealthy defendants in prison whose fees enable her to take on pro bono clients. The drive back to her modest house is equally stressful. The driver brings the car inside the compound for security. But at night fear comes because there are sporadic electricity blackouts and no back up resources for her to use her computer to Skype her husband and remain updated with news events. The men do not drive her anywhere at night; it is unsafe. Is Motley nervous? When asked about it, she is sanguine about the ever present dark clouds swirling about her. But that will change.
As the camera tracks her, we cannot help but admire the smoothly confident, steely wisdom of this beautiful Korean-African-American former Miss Wisconsin. She is uncompromising; she will make a difference in a country which is unremittingly harsh and brutal to women and whose patriarchal culture demands they have no person-hood or identity apart from a man’s. In this city Motley is a veritable iconoclast. A contrast to Afghani women, Motley embraces her Western look and culture. Refusing to wear the head scarf with her pants outfit, her attire signals that she will never accept the male mores which force women’s subservience, sometimes at the point of death.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Horanyi’s portrait is Motley’s symbolic presence in Kabul where she represents the opportunity of progress for women. She models humanity and decency for men and women as she operates in the corrupted and constrained world of men inside and outside Kabul’s justice system. Motley is effective and Horanyi shows her superiority for she adroitly handles Afghanistan’s legal system, and she is even more knowledgeable about the Quran than some of the bureaucrats and tribal leaders. She logically, calmly wins arguments and stands up to those who have voided or misapplied the law so that eventually her clients are released through painstaking perseverance. This is a woman whose inner power is manifest. It is an amazing reflection of light in dark corners which would prefer to remain secretly supremacist. But eventually even Motley is forced to realize that a reflection of light is not be enough to sustain her as the threatening storm clouds close in.
This is an important film. Horanyi’s documentary questions the purpose and efficacy of the Afghan war. After years of intransigence and difficulty establishing a viable government that keeps its own citizens safe and provides justice and freedom from poverty, corruption and military oppression, there has been little movement. Indeed. there has been destabilization. And this has migrated to other countries like Pakistan and Syria. Such destabilization continues to foment the celebration of violence which is not even founded upon true tenets of the Muslim religion, but which is a blind for inciting wanton, unjust brutality for its own sake. There is nothing sacred or holy about oppression and death. Where this will end, and if it can end in the enforcement of the rule of law is the overriding theme of the film.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0143034669] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=0307952509]