Judge, The: Erika Cohn’s Relevant Documentary

Erika Cohn’s THE JUDGE is a documentary about the first woman judge to be appointed to the Middle East’s Shari’a courts.

The feature premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Fest and will be broadcast on PBS’ 2018 Independent Lens series.

Religious courts in the Middle East had historically banned women from adjudicating domestic and family matters–in both the Shari’a courts of Islam and the Rabbinic courts of Judaism– until Kholoud Al-Faqih, dares to challenge that history.

With the support of a progressive Sheik, Kholoud becomes the first woman judge with her appointment to a Palestinian Shari’a court in the West Bank, bringing a new perspective garnered from her early professional life working with battered women as an attorney in both the criminal and Shari’a courts.

This feature-length documentary chronicles Kholoud’s appointment, her first years as a judge, and her tenacious ability to maintain her position despite attempts to marginalize and demote her.

Through Kholoud’s eyes, the film examines the religious and legal stipulations between men and women according to Shari’a law, relaying how the worst aspects of misinterpreted Shari’a laws reflect a tragic misogyny – rape, beatings, and polygamy – stemming from misconstrued ignorance of the Qur’an.

As Kholoud’s most compelling cases develop in gripping cinema vérité style, the film reveals the kinds of misinterpretations of Shari’a law that Kholoud now has the power to correct.

THE JUDGE follows Kholoud in and outside of the courtroom as she asserts her right to equality and redefines how Shari’a law perceives, treats, and respects women.

Illustrating a unique portrait of her sustained intervention, THE JUDGE reveals that Shari’a is a system largely mischaracterized both in the Middle East and in the West. Amid a time of rapidly increasing global Islamophobia, the unprecedented Muslim Ban and potential future Muslim registry – THE JUDGE illuminates how colonial occupation has impacted the legal and cultural worlds of the contemporary Islamic world, while reflecting a universal struggle for women’s control over their bodies, economic welfare, custodial rights, and marital status.

About the Filmmakers

Erika Cohn, Producer & Director
ERIKA COHN is an Emmy award winning director-producer who Variety recognized as one of 2017’s top ten documentary filmmakers.

Erika co-directed/produced, IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST, an Emmy award-winning, feature documentary about the unique faith and culture that ultimately drives young Pacific Islander men into the NFL, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast on PBS’ 2016 Independent Lens series. Her work has been supported by IFP, the Sundance Institute, Tribeca Institute, Hot Docs, Sheffield, ITVS, Women in Film, BAVC and the CPB Producer’s Academy among others. In 2013, Erika founded Idle Wild Films, Inc., which has released three feature documentaries and produced numerous branded content and commercial spots, including Gatorade’s Win from Within series, for which she received a 2016 Webby award nomination. Erika is also an avid photographer and served as a U.S. Ambassadorial Film Scholar to Israel/Palestine.


Filmmaker’s Statement – By Erika Cohn

While I was on a shooting hiatus with my last film, IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST, I received a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship in Israel/Palestine. There I taught film, mentored local filmmakers, assisted NGOs launch media advocacy projects, and continued my post-graduate research in Islamic feminism at Hebrew University. One day, a dear friend and colleague invited me to attend a Shari’a law reform meeting in Ramallah.

I was welcomed into a large conference room filled with the images of Arafat throughout the years hanging in old picture frames, and seated at a table surrounded by men in tarboushes (hats that judges and sheikhs wear). Then Judge Kholoud walked in and everyone stood to great her. I was immediately struck by her presence – her confidence – her command of the room. I wanted to know more. Who was this woman? What was her story?

Though my Arabic comprehension was limited, I listened intently to a discussion about Palestine’s legal challenges, issues of domestic violence, regulations surrounding polygamy and the importance of raising the marriage age. I began to grapple with the complexities of law in Palestine. As Judge Kholoud passionately spoke about how women are disproportionally impacted by these inconsistencies and addressed the difficulties in creating a uniform legal system, I wondered why and how she decided to become a Shari’a judge.

Judge Kholoud and I were introduced at the end of the meeting and I was moved by her charisma and personal story. After spending her first years as an attorney representing women who were survivors of domestic violence, Kholoud felt she could best catalyze change in the Shari’a courts, where familial cases are adjudicated. She then turned to the Shari’a text to prove that women could be judges and began studying for the judicial exams. I remember asking her how she felt about the mistreatment of women under Shari’a…to which she responded, the problem isn’t with the Shari’a, it is with the interpretation (or rather misinterpretation).

I have always been fascinated with how law is interpreted – how power, economics and/or status can influence implementation. I am captivated by the intersect and tension between religion, culture and identity. I am drawn to narratives about strong women. Kholoud’s story stuck with me and I felt that her experiences might invoke a more nuanced understanding of Shari’a, challenge rapidly increasing global Islamophobia and highlight positive advancements for women by women in the Middle East, which are often uncovered or ignored by mainstream media.

Kholoud immediately expressed enthusiasm in making a film about her journey and invited me into her courtroom, where we would later unobtrusively capture proceedings with GoPros and small DSLR cameras. She hoped that sharing her story would inspire other women and girls throughout the Muslim world to pursue leadership roles in their communities, despite cultural and/or traditional norms. Thus, THE JUDGE was born.

Directer and Producer: Erika Cohn
Executive Producer: Geralyn Dreyfous, Diana Lady Dougan, Barbara Dobkin, Patty Quillin, Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen
Co-Producer: Jennifer Jordan, Sara Maamouri, Amber Fares, Mark Lipson
Editor: Sara Maamouri, Ken Schneider
Cinematographer: Amber Fares
Music: Omar Fadel
Interviewees: Kholoud Al-Faqih and family, Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi, Dr. Husam Al-Deen Afanah, Yaqoub Shawwa,
Imad Ahmad, Reema Shamasneh, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Tahreer Hammad, Dareen Salhiyeh, Sumayya Irhaimeh, Mustafa Shrateh, Sireen Anabousi
Associate Producers: Nicole Docta, Natasha Atalla