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HOT DOCS 2022

Review: African Moot

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- Shameela Seedat follows a group of aspiring lawyers competing in the annual African Human Rights Moot Court Competition

Review: African Moot

In her new documentary African Moot, human-rights law specialist and filmmaker Shameela Seedat (Whispering Truth to Power) focuses on a group of young, aspiring lawyers gathering for one week in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, to take part in the annual African Human Rights Moot Court Competition. The feature, showcased at this year’s Hot Docs, begins with a very straightforward opening, wherein the helmer alternates archive footage depicting some of the participants in action with a few title cards explaining the moot’s basic rules. Every year, thousands of law students from a number of African universities join the competition, and each university chooses its two best orators to argue a fictional court case. Moreover, the participants will argue the case for both sides – as applicant and respondent. This time around, the focus is on the rights of refugees.

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The approach followed by Seedat is simple and linear. She chooses to observe a small group of contestants from the beginning until the end of the competition. We can easily see how passionate these young African law students are about their causes and how their ideas are generally very progressive, aiming to protect the weakest parts of African society as well as some of the most heavily discriminated minorities, including members of the LGBTQI community.

While the topics tackled and the director’s willingness to show that there is a promising, enlightened elite who could contribute to a better future for Africa are certainly commendable, the observational approach and the heavily verbose nature of this film – it’s a movie about lawyers and fictional court cases, after all – may fail to keep viewers hooked throughout. On a more positive note, however, the conflict between the bizarre, competitive nature of a human rights-focused event and the sincere concerns of the students, along with the picture’s lack of “sugarcoating”, makes for some rather interesting viewing.

In particular, the doc’s most critical moment takes place during the academic conference held in between the preliminary and final rounds of the event. After several interventions about the lack of open borders, Pan-Africanism, the troubled state of the economy and the problematic living conditions for the members of the continent’s LGBTQI community, a fifty-something Nigerian lecturer takes the floor and expresses his concerns about “international norms that don’t reflect the real values of Africa”. He then makes some very unpleasant remarks about “being very careful in advocating these rights”, sparking debate and anger, but also eliciting some cheering from the crowd. It’s certainly something to think about, since the setting where all of this takes place is that of a human rights-focused gathering, where like-minded, supportive individuals should be on the same page.

Delving more deeply into these conflictual aspects could have perhaps delivered a more intense, engaging piece. The ending, set eight months after the competition, shows how the participants have progressed with their careers and their lives, becoming lawyers, parliamentarians and activists who are still fighting for freedom and equality, while the number of refugees in Africa and worldwide keeps on skyrocketing.

African Moot is a co-production between South African outfits STEPS and Undercurrent Film & Television, and Finland’s Tuffi Films.

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