Snapshots from AFI Doc Fest 2021 | The Neutral Ground & Courtroom 3H

Below are mini-reviews from the 2021 AFI Doc Fest, featuring words from Billie Melissa on Courtroom 3H and The Neutral Ground

Courtroom 3H dir. by Antonio Méndez Esparza

In three chapters, the stories between the walls of the 2nd Judicial Court in Leon County, Florida, are told. Shot throughout 2019, filmmaker Antonio Méndez Esparza takes inspiration from the words of James Baldwin: 

"If one really wants to know how justice is administered in a country, one goes to the unprotected and listens to their testimony"

That he does, focusing on a few cases, Esparza aims to, without polemic, attempt to connect humanity. As an observational documentary, the camera rests in the courtroom as emotionally charged stories plough through the system. It feels invasive at first as mothers cry and children look out of place among the institutional aesthetic, but as the film progresses, the audience finds their place and settles into its pace. 

Although it has a through-line, essentially with 'characters' whose cases we track, it is always challenging to engage an audience without an explicit motive. With the run time closing in on two hours, it begins feeling somewhat impersonal but slowly grows into a rich study of how we connect as humans. 

It has its moments of levity and does well to not succumb to exploiting its subjects. Esparza says of his film: 

"People are, in a way, parts of the machinery. This is not to objectify them, rather to give a face, a soul to the machine, represent an institution that can sometimes succeed, and others may fail."

The climax of Courtroom 3H could have perhaps been its own short film. For its last twenty to thirty minutes, it settles on one single case. The lawyer is the most compelling in the room, and the camera gravitates to her as she battles so passionately for her client, being unafraid to add emotion to a world so arbitrary and clerical as the justice system. It embodies the film's entire message of compassion, empathy and understanding for people whose stories look so black and white on the surface. 

The Neutral Ground dir. by CJ Hunt

"It's amazing that in 2015, I'm fighting Robert E. Lee," The Neutral Ground starts strong, firm in its foundations from the first three minutes, where we see New Orleans City Council agree to remove four of its Confederate monuments in the city. The council's ruling isn't enough to set the plans in motion, and so comes 500+ long days of campaigning while white supremacists threaten removal companies to stop the removals going ahead.

From middle school teacher to comedian, CJ Hunt leads his debut documentary in an enthralling way. He brings accessibility to a conversation that split a country in half and explores "The Neutral Ground" between Confederate loving white supremacists and activists mobilising for systemic change. Typically, films of this kind tend to expect their audience to have a certain level of understanding before walking in, but Hunt has made the conversation open for anyone and everyone to grab a seat at the table. He breaks down who the statues are of, their legacy and shows the skewed narrative embedded in the education system that leads to a certain kind of thinking.

It contextualises its opposing side, Hunt throwing himself into spaces of discomfort or danger with the Confederate flag touting men who indulge in civil war re-enactments and false narratives. Hunt has no interest in judging them and wants to engage in a dialogue that'll lead them to truth and reconciliation. 

The Neutral Ground is so well crafted that it feels there is not a toe out of line. The film glides by, even with its slim run time of 82 minutes, but packs in powerful lesson after powerful lesson with a sprinkle of humour throughout. Hunt analyses the fibres of a country that cannot come undone without placing truth back in the misconceptions that have become part of the mainstream narrative. 

Having begun filming in 2015, The Neutral Ground has the unique angle of being in the present moment with people that became part of modern history. He was filming as Trump became president, present as white men burned torches to the patter of "you will not replace us" in Charlottesville, rounding off in cyclicality as the public pushed slave owner monuments from their pews. 

It's a remarkable piece of filmmaking for the fact it captures the conversation it is having as it persists into the present day. Hunt has taken almost five years of footage and condensed it to the neatest thing it could be while balancing humour with sincere emotion and power. 

The Neutral Ground will have its Broadcast premiere as the opening film for PBS POV's 34th Season on July 5th 2021 and will begin streaming on through August 4th. 

AFI Doc Fest ran from 21st - 27th June, for more info visit

Post a Comment

My Instagram

Copyright © Cinematic Faves. Made with by OddThemes . Distributed by Weblyb