Why and How the Film was Made

The drive that led to creating Courting Justice came from my work in developing countries, continents away from South Africa. My work in those countries—work which was directed at poverty alleviation,  strengthened my belief that democratic governments are essential—not sufficient, but essential—to meeting such major societal needs as poverty reduction, economic development, public health improvement, educational advancement and human rights. I gave myself the gift of time to study what was being done theoretically and practically to establish democracies.

South Africa quickly emerged from my studies as the country on which to concentrate. A compelling attraction was the unique purpose and foundation of the anti-apartheid struggle there. Unlike other revolutionary efforts, the purpose of South Africa’s struggle was not confined to replacing the people in power, nor were its promises the empty slogans characteristic of other revolutions. Its aim was to establish a human rights-based constitutional democracy—an aim founded on more than half a century during which the details of that democracy’s foundation, form and substance were refined.

Another compelling attraction was the importance of South Africa’s transition to democracy. The success of its efforts is significant for South Africa, of course. It is also of great significance for the many countries emerging from an authoritarian past bathed in conflict which are now claiming to embrace democratic transformations. The South Africa experience is the exemplar.

Conversations with people whom I knew shared my interest, directed me to Tom Karis, a political scientist whose South African engagement extends over more than half a century and  who is now completing what promises to be the definitive work on South Africa’s Constitutional Court. “I know I will learn a lot. But,” I asked,” can I make a contribution?” He pointed out that since Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, his election to the presidency and the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings, South Africa has faded  from public attention . He advised that whatever I could do to attract attention back to South Africa would be a contribution. My conversation with Tom Karis helped focus my attention and encouraged me to proceed.

As a political scientist, I decided to focus on the rule of law—more specifically, on the  judiciary’s engagement in the country’s  transformation.  I compiled a list, through basic research, of relevant organizations and went to South Africa. 


Prelude to Courting Justice

In South Africa I was successful in meeting with many of the people whose work coincided with my interest. Their welcoming spirit and generosity, giving me much of their time and providing me with extensive information made my time in South Africa productive. That South Africans are highly organized into an extensive civil society facilitated access to the people with whom I needed to speak. These South African features advanced my learning curve.

One of the persons with whom I met was Michelle O’Sullivan, the founder and at that time Executive Director of the Women’s Legal Centre [WLC]. The WLC, dedicated to breathing life into the Constitution’s  gender equality promises, was concluding its fifth year. Decades earlier I had examined an organized effort with a similar purpose in the United States (published as "Equal Rights for Women through Litigation: An Examination of the ACLU Women's Rights Project, 1971-1976," in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Fall, 1976).  With the cooperation of Michelle O’Sullivan, I studied the WLC five year record, the results of which were presented in Acta Juridica, a leading law review journal published under the auspices of the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Law.

A counterpart to looking at WLC’s work was to learn from the judges what they were doing to advance gender equality. Again, with Tom Karis’ voice still echoing, I directed my efforts at organizing a Congressional Breakfast at which Justices Kate O’Regan and Yvonne Mokgoro, the two women then serving on the Constitutional Court, would speak on this subject. The Congressional Human Rights Caucus, the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues and the Congressional Black Caucus agreed to host the event, with sponsorship from American University’s Women & Politics Institute, the International Association of Women Judges and the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. On April 13, 2005  South Africa’s two women Constitutional Court Justices, introduced by United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, addressed 300 attendees in the Gold Room of the Rayburn House Office Building. South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States, Barbara Masekela, provided an additional perspective. An additional 350 had wanted to attend—but the Gold Room could not accommodate them.

My years of advocacy in the United States on behalf of gender equality had impressed me with the importance of women’s participation in government’s exercise of power, and, therefore, drew me especially to South Africa’s women judges. They were New Democracy appointees—during the decades of apartheid, there had been but one woman appointed to the superior courts—i.e., the provincial  high courts and the Supreme Court. The Constitution now mandated the consideration of gender in making judicial appointments.  Yet, the women on the bench were too few in number and, as is common for all judges, unknown beyond the limited sphere of those in and surrounding the judiciary. Working with South Africa’s affiliate of the International Association of Women Judges on a project to advance judicial appointments of women, I came to know many of the women judges. To know them was to respect them deeply. Their commitment to transformation, their professionalism and their humanity are compelling.  I wanted to introduce them to South Africa and to the world. My intention was to feature them in a book. Then, I saw An Inconvenient Truth.  The inspiration light flashed: a documentary would offer greater immediate impact and wider reach. I decided to present the women judges in a movie, even though that meant including but a few of the women I had come to know.  I mentioned this intention to Shameela Seedat, who had been especially helpful to me in my research—Shameela monitors parliament for IDASA.( IDASA, an acronym for the Institute for the Advancement of Democracy in South Africa was an important participant in the anti-apartheid movement. It continues post-apartheid as the Institute for Democracy in South Africa—still IDASA.) Shameela introduced me to Francois Verster, one of South Africa’s outstanding film makers;  Francois introduced me to Neil Brandt, a principal at Luna Films—Luna Films, whose other principal was Bridget Pickering, had produced Francois’ award-winning films.



In anticipation of creating South Africa’s Women Judges—what was then the working title, I interviewed  approximately half of all the women judges then serving on provincial High Courts, the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court. I then contracted with Luna Films to provide the ”treatment ”—a proposal that detailed the budget, production schedule, filming equipment, themes and film sequences. The themes and film sequences were taken from the interviews. Luna Films identified possible directors and editors and with my involvement in a process that included viewing films each had made and many conversations, selections were made.



I signed a contract with Luna Films for what the industry terms “a film for hire” in mid-July 2007.  Throughout the production process I viewed and commented on the film footage. When I was not in South Africa, there were frequent conferences via skype. When in South Africa, the producers, director, editor and I worked together during many long-day sessions. At each session, Neil Brandt announced we could not end the day without deciding on the title. It, however, was not until the end of our last session that we named our product.

The contract projected that the final cut would be delivered by February 2008. It was “delivered” in July 2008 only days in advance of its premiere at the Encounters Film Festival in Johannesburg. It premiered in the United States in September at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Francois’ prediction that we would work well together proved prescient. Our collaboration—and it was a full collaboration—was enriching and its result is Courting Justice.   


Post Production

Courting Justice was made to be seen. The demands for distribution equal—and in many ways exceed—those of production. Women Make Movies was initially selected to be the distributing agent for the United States and Canada. However as of May 2011 the film is now available for purchase and online viewing or downloading through Amazon.com (click for more information). And Luna Films (which has since merged to become Fireworx Media) to be the agent for Africa and other countries.

Ongoing Updates - Postings from Ruth Cowan: December 20, 2010October 17, 2010