(Photo courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival)

51st Chicago International Film Festival Documentary Competition special presentation


In this writer's opinion, documentary films are at their strongest when they merge two symbiotic pairs of traits.  A good documentary and its human interest story merges truth with its narrative.  Secondly, a good documentary merges its overarching message with art.  Any of those four ingredients alone are not enough.  In the documentary genre, a narrative without truth defeats its nonfiction purpose and the central message being delivered needs the artistic touch requisite to its chosen medium of cinema.  As long as it can achieve those two mergers, a successful documentary can take any subject and give it proper focus.

To its great credit, "Motley's Law," a new documentary film making its North American premiere at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival, exudes much of those four essential qualities of a good documentary.  Truth, by far, is its highest trait.  The film is as no-nonsense as its subject figure, Kimberly Motley.  "Motley's Law" screens on October 20 and 22 at the 51st CIFF.  Director Nicole Horyani and Motley herself will be in attendance for both showings.

The pillar of unabashed truth at the center of "Motley's Law" is Kimberly Motley.  As unlikely as it is going to sound, this 38-year-old former beauty queen you see before you is the only licensed American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan.  Yes, you read that right.  This is Kabul, Afghanistan and she, yes she, is the only one, and she's a woman.  Seasonally since 2008, Motley leaves her North Carolina home, her husband, and two children and goes overseas.  She fiercely defends foreign and domestic clients of all types and crimes in the muddled arena of the newly democratic Afghan court system mixed with the ideals of the Qu'ran and practices of Sharia Law.

Kimberly Motley does all of the things you do.  She gets up and goes to work.  She carries herself as a professional.  She checks in on her family via the internet.  She opens up a bottle of wine at the end of a tough work day.  However, she does all that as an American woman in the hotbed of Kabul.  As the documentary opens, Motley is returning to Afghanistan after a trip away to learn the news that a grenade was thrown onto her bedroom balcony while she was gone.  Luckily, it didn't go off.  

Working only a driver and a personal assistant, Motley is not afraid to admit to the documentarians that she does this for the money to support her family and pay off her and her husband's college loans.  For a woman that says she does it for the money and isn't her for pillars, she sure takes on her fair share of causes in following her daily work in "Motley's Law."  People who do it for the money aren't taking their time away from their main cases to provide free legal advice to imprisoned women.  There's more underneath her ironclad surface.  

Go ahead and say it.  Kimberly Motley has balls bigger than you.  Stress and hard work environment are understatements.  Motley is a sternly compelling central figure worthy of this documentary treatment.  She is winning cases and making a difference with every successful defense she leads.  With every "this is ridiculous" verbal jab, she fights back and challenges this otherwise obstinate environment.  The documentary sticks to its minimalism.  There is no narrator and a brief soundtrack.  The production value is plain, but the bright sun of Afghanistan and Motley do all the talking one would need.  "Motley's Law" won't be the flashiest documentary you see this year, but it will command respect.

LESSON #1: ACCEPTING STRESS AND RISK TO PERFORM A JOB-- Motley is a foreigner blazing her trail in a system that wouldn't normally accept her as an equal.  As a woman, she is already lower on their societal totem pole.  As a brazen personality, she pushes buttons and becomes a target.  Motley has faced death threats and knows that she risks not seeing her family for long stretches (or worse).  She still wants to be an active wife and mom, but this is where the best work is.  To her, places like Kabul and Dubai are worth it for the money and for the difference she makes.  Could she stay home?  Certainly, but this is a select opportunity.  To step into this situation, Motley has made her choice and accepted this job choice with all of the stress, threat, and risk that comes with it.  

LESSON #2: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE RULE OF LAW-- As a trained American attorney, Kimberly Motley knows how important a properly working judicial system can be.  The justice and fairness of those laws is what settles a country into a proper democracy.  Afghanistan is still relatively new to working within those rules, having ratified its first democratic constitution in 2004.  Too often, Motley has to call out corruption, misinformation, and wrongful litigation.  The rule of law is what is on her side the most and she has to find the best way to reinforce that in her cases.