10e Chambre, instants d’audiences (2004)

Dir. by Raymond Depardon

10e Chambre, instants d’audiences is 105 minutes of documentary footage shot within a French District courtroom. We watch as Madame Justice Michèle Bernard-Requin hears the cases brought against twelve defendants (culled from the 169 that Depardon originally shot). Most are there on misdemeanor offenses: drunk driving, petty theft, possession of a weapon, selling marijuana. And in nearly every case we watch the process from start to finish, from plea to verdict.

During the screening of 10e Chambre, instants d’audiences, I was quite disappointed by the film, but even then I knew that my disappointment was with the audience rather than with the film itself. At the Sunday screening — and friends who saw it on Tuesday report a very different experience — 10e Chambre played as pure comedy. (One friend, a TIFF veteran, argues that crowds are different during the opening weekend, when more people dress up and come out to experience the festival itself rather than to see the films, and I think he might be right.)

The idea of 10e Chambre as “comedy” is quite disturbing to me. And I’ve come to realize that that is partly Depardon’s point. He crafts the film so that our allegiances immediately fall to the side of the witty and cynical Judge, whose clever retorts to the first few defendants are, at times, well justified. But by the time we are laughing at a young man who is clearly under the influence of a narcotic while in the courtroom, the joke has gone on too long. We are now no longer well-heeled sophisticates at an international film festival; we are Middle Americans, smoking pot, watching Jerry Springer, and laughing at the poor clods who are too poorly educated, too economically burdened, too mentally incapacitated, or ( perhaps most damning of all) too dark-skinned to know any better.

10e Chambre began to open up for me when my friend Girish described that laughter as a Rorschach Test. What do we laugh at? How do we choose where to direct our derision? And why do we often side with those in authority? Depardon shoots each of the defendants from the same static, low-angle position, giving us a perspective of the criminal that is similar (metaphorically speaking) to the Judge’s: he or she is a disembodied head, divorced from context or backstory, who is offered only a few moments to justify his or her behavior. The opportunity to judge them is impossibly seductive, as my audience proved, and Depardon invites us to do so by not revealing the verdicts of the final cases. I have no doubt how most in that theater would have ruled.

As a side note, one of my friends who attended the Tuesday screening reports that one or two members of that audience also felt the need to laugh throughout much of the film. Not surprisingly, the social pressure of being the lone voice laughing in a hushed room led them to suppress that urge during the last half hour. The analogy to being a lone voice of dissent, whether in an important public discourse or, say, a jury room, is fascinating. This will be a wonderful film to teach.