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Can docudrama/docufiction do justice to the legal system ?

Prof Barbara Villez

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There are a multiplicity of terms that can be used to describe a film composed of televised news extracts, interviews and fictional reconstitutions, which makes it difficult to classify Denys Granier-Deferre's Rendez-moi Justice (Maha Productions 2007, France 3). Most docudramas, dramamentaries, drama-docs, or what the French call 'docufictions', are met 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 however as, with no visual archives of the trial in existence, fiction was needed to tell the story - as Derek Paget would say, there was 'no other way to tell it' (1998).

The case involved Richard Roman and Didier Gentil, brought to trial in 1991 for the brutal rape and murder four years before, of seven-year-old Celine 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' 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' and '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 Celine'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.

A similar case of false accusations in 2004 led to the Outreau judicial scandal and brought director Denys Granier-Deferre and Maha Productions to return to the Roman-Gentil case some fifteen years after the trial. The film consists of news clips, mostly traditional visions of comings and goings on courthouse steps, but also contains shocking news reports of the reconstruction 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 that had participated in the trial were interviewed some years later for this made-for-TV movie. 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 Celine'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 authority and authenticity and 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 deftly weaves the fictional scenes into those of news archive and interviews so that one could easily overlook 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 rendering the juxtaposition believable. The actress playing Celine's mother can no longer listen to the details of the violence her daughter was subjected to and faints as she leaves the courtroom. The next shot is news footage of Celine's real mother being escorted out of court by her father. At another moment the actress-mother turns her eyes away from the 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.

Despite the fact that cameras have not been allowed in French courts since 1954 permission to shoot real courtroom scenes for documentaries has been granted (in special circumstances) over the last ten years. In the absence of real footage, however, and in an attempt to ignite viewers' imaginations and inject the suspense of courtroom scenes into hybrid documentaries, directors often resort to short, faceless or shadowed fictional reconstitutions. Such scenes are generally not taken seriously, do not offer valid information nor do they add much to the documentary. On the other hand the hybrid documentary-fiction form is often sensationalist and, as noted above, is met with scepticism by the French. This is why Granier-Deferre's Rendez-moi Justice is so succesful and proves that, in the right hands, the hybrid documentary-fiction form translates the essence of the judicial case into visual information and restores the emotions and tension of a real trial. It is clear that without scenes of the trial no documentary could have moved audiences to experience the tension or emotions felt by both families (Celine's and Roman's) and witness just how close this trial came to judicial catastrophe.

Rendez-moi Justice clearly shows how dramamentary, or docufiction, need not be just a patchwork of haphazard images but can, when handled thoughtfully, be a skilful juxtaposition of fiction and reality which can convey much that historical archives can not.

Barbara Villez is professor of legal language and culture at the Universit de Paris 8. This year she has become a research fellow at the CNRS-Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique where she works on several projects linked to British and American legal series. She is also an associate researcher at the Institute of Advanced Judicial Studies in Paris where she is working in collaboration with French scriptwriters and producers on how to represent the French legal system in national television fictions. Prof Villez also directs a research group at Paris 8, the JILC (Justices, Images, Langues, Cultures) and is a member of an international network of researchers called Images of Justice (website : http://www.imagesofjustice.org). Prof Villez's book Series Tl : Visions de la Justice (2005, Presses Universitaires de France) is a history of American law series broadcast on television over sixty years and will soon be out in English translation by Routledge.

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. 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.

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