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“The Law Can Be Used Simultaneously to Harm and to Help…”: Shameela Seedat on Her Hot Docs-Premiering African Moot

African Moot

African Moot marks the Hot Docs return of human rights law specialist/award-winning filmmaker Shameela Seedat, who last took the Special Jury Prize at the fest back in 2018 with Whispering Truth to Power. That doc trailed her nation’s brave anti-corruption crusader Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s first female Public Protector. And now with this latest Seedat turns her lens to an international topic even closer to home.

Created under the auspices of Generation Africa, African Moot refers to the African Human Rights Moot Competition, the largest mock court tournament on the continent. (Generation Africa itself is a project of South Africa’s STEPS – which has yet to produce a film that didn’t rock my world. See Akuol de Mabior’s Berlinale-debuting No Simple Way Home, likewise having its Canadian premiere April 30 at the fest.) And battling it out for top prize are Africa’s best (and most idealistic and cutthroat) aspiring lawyers, four teams of which Seedat follows from their respective universities in Cape Town, Cairo, Kampala and Nairobi all the way to Botswana. It’s here that the skilled orators will have to argue before rounds of intimidating judges (both for the prosecution and defense) in a far-too-real, fictional human rights court case dealing with the perpetual question of refugee rights. And ultimately, if they make it to the final smackdown, have the painful pleasure of appearing before the even more intimidating international judges at Botswana’s highest court.

A week prior to the film’s April 30 world premiere in the World Showcase program, Filmmaker reached out to Seedat to learn all about her nail-biting legal adventure across a vast continent in which around 30 million are considered internally displaced persons, refugees or asylum-seekers. (In other words, one-third of the world’s refugee population. Which shamefully gives the lie to our US border “crisis” to boot.)

Filmmaker: As a filmmaker who’s worked at the constitutional court of South Africa (and at the UNDP/UNIFEM in New York) this doc seems near and dear to your heart. But it also seems like one in which access to institutions might have been a bit easier. So did your human rights law background play a role in opening any doors for you and your crew?

Seedat: It felt completely natural and honest for me to make a film about young university law students at a moot competition. Many years ago I was a law student myself. And while I only ever had the courage to participate in a single minor moot, I was fascinated by those students around me who had the guts to perform, persuade and be grilled on a podium.

As a filmmaker I was drawn to making a film about this particular moot, the All Africa, because it is so much more than a competition. Over the last 30 years it has grown into an important pan-African tradition, where each year law students, human rights academics and practitioners gather in a different African country to focus attention on urgent contemporary matters towards cooperative action. What appeals to me is the idea of young people coming together from across the continent in a manner that continues ideals that might not be regarded in some quarters as being that vogue in current times.

When I first met the main organizers of the Moot Competition — the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, as well as other universities around the continent — to get access, we ended up chatting a fair deal about my law background. I do think it instantly became a point of connection and of shared objectives.

For one, the older generation of academics were keen that moot debates reach a wider audience and not be constrained by technical legal language and limited to lawyers. They were also keen to “showcase” the resourcefulness and brilliance of young students on the continent participating in these mock trials. When I finally began to meet students from various countries and to try to get to know them better, and then also during the course of filming, I definitely think that my law background specifically helped with “breaking the ice.” We swapped law school stories, talked about life after law school, and also about notable court judgements and the rules of law. I am still in touch with some of the students in this regard.

Filmmaker: So how did you go about casting this truly compelling group of students? Did you know immediately who you wanted to focus on, or did you whittle down the characters in the editing room?

Seedat: As there were going to be around 120 students qualifying for the competition from across the continent, we potentially had a very large character pool to draw from. We therefore had to think and proceed carefully during the initial stages of character selection, especially given our limited financial resources, as well as distance and time constraints.

To begin with, we came up with a few guiding principles for selecting our characters. One was “geographical variety” — to mirror the fact that people were coming from different regions of the continent to compete. Second, we hoped to find characters with at least some form of a personal relationship to the (refugee and LGBQTI) issues raised in the moot. Third, we felt the film should ideally have a set of characters who were diverse in style, character and personal tone. And we also thought that it might be useful to focus on characters who came from countries where refugee and migration issues were under the spotlight. Finally, and importantly, we hoped to follow the journey of potential winners – which of course was difficult as winners are unpredictable from year to year. That said, upon further deeper research a few general trends were discernible.

So with those principles in mind, I chatted with as many students as possible, both before and during the competition, and selected a few of them to focus on. At the same time, I must say that things were happening rather quickly and spontaneously. We also just ended up following our gut and instinct for the most part.

In the end, we were not able to include all the students we filmed, though we included most of them in some way or the other, and I really feel that we struck gold with our main characters. We were especially lucky in having begun filming more extensively with the Makerere team from Uganda well before the competition date, and that they ended up in the final rounds.

One other thing, though — it was particularly difficult to completely leave out the team from Luzira prison in Kampala who participated in the moot for the first time. Two remarkable longterm prisoners — one had been on death row — who are studying law part-time from a high security prison competed through a video linkup from their prison cell. For various reasons we unfortunately had to leave them out of the film. Nevertheless, for me personally this was a very important learning experience.

Filmmaker: Perhaps because the US takes up much of North America I think we on this side of the ocean tend to forget that the African continent is comprised of so many distinct countries, each with its own very specific refugee issues. In other words, Africa is not a monolith, something African Moot takes pains to make clear. So are there other colonialist cliches or just preconceived notions that you’re hoping to upend with this film?

Seedat: First of all I should make it clear that as an African filmmaker I do not feel it is my job to make films as “correctives” to problematic outsiders’ views. But of course it is not a bad thing at all if this does happen. And as you say, in a film like African Moot the diversity of people, countries, ideas and policies within Africa is plain and clear to see. While we weren’t going out of our way to make this statement — it just is what it is — I would be pleased if those who view the continent as a “monolith” do end up watching and enjoying the film. I myself have had new insights while making it.

There is a distorted picture in the mainstream media of Africans fleeing “en masse” to Europe, making dangerous attempts through the Mediterranean or the North African desert to get there, and placing the highest burden on these further away countries. However, in reality over 80 percent of migration in Africa is intercontinental, and the bulk of movement takes place over land to other African countries.

Africa actually hosts more than one third of the world’s refugee population. For many years now countries here have had to deal with refugee emergencies and attendant challenges, and continue to do so, with varying levels of success. Interestingly too, African Regional Law on Refugees gives a much more expanded definition to the term “refugee” — you see this in the mock court trials in the film — than other international laws on the same subject.

And a further preconception that students at the Moot were particularly keen to confront is the notion that “human rights” are a Western concept, pioneered by countries there, and imported into a “rights-unaware” Africa. As one student pointed out, “We have had our own ways of defending and protecting human rights for centuries now.” In a way, the All-African Moot entails an examination of contemporary manifestations of historical African notions of human rights and their relationship to other codes of law.

Filmmaker: I’m also wondering how you ensured the mental wellbeing of these college kids you follow. You capture so much high drama — from friendships being undermined by the ruthless competition; to a gay character having to sit through a conference in which an attendees’s homophobic diatribe results in some shameful applause. So what were the discussions like about what would (and wouldn’t) be shown onscreen?

Seedat: Once we got back from the competition and started to construct an assembly of the film, it was clear that certain material should be treated in a very sensitive and nuanced manner. After all, we were filming young students operating under the stress of a competition, who also have full professional lives ahead of them.

Before editing proper, I spoke openly to relevant characters to find out more about how they viewed certain events that had taken place. I also formally interviewed them retrospectively about their experiences at competition. Through this process we got a better sense of characters’ comfort levels, and also what was personally important for them to see in the film.

Then during the edit we showed rough cuts to the main characters, and at times refined or adapted parts of the film as a result of these discussions. As an extra measure we double-checked with moot organizers, and also with university academics in other countries who supervise the relevant characters and who know the wider dynamics within the context of their own countries. We needed to make certain that we were not missing any important factor that we might have been unaware of, sitting in our edit suite in Cape Town. I sincerely hope that we did justice to everyone. (I can say that the characters seem to enjoy the film!)

Filmmaker: One student from American University in Cairo has a great line about human rights law not actually empowering everyone — that we need to fight for that empowerment to be made real. Which quite reminds me of recent discussions around democracy — that it’s not some sort of “natural state,” but something that has to be rigorously maintained. As a human rights law specialist who’s also worked at the South African-based think tank/democracy research institute Idasa, do you have any practical ideas about reforming and strengthening our current systems?

Seedat: As you say, democratic progress is not inevitable. The fact that the law can be used simultaneously to harm and to help emerged organically as a theme of the film. There is in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, often a disjuncture between the intent of the law and the lived experience of the law; in a way, the notion of human rights law sits at the juncture of these two concepts.

Given that any basic system of democratic rights can only be as effective as the people charged with implementation, it is important that ethical, responsive, trustworthy and compassionate people populate our institutions; and that they also protect and advance the most vulnerable among us. And, no matter who populates these institutions, all of us need to keep vigilant and see to it that our current systems operate in practice to achieve greater fairness and equality. And that they foster a strong culture of accountability. We can hope to achieve this in multi-pronged ways; it starts with kids’ conversations in school classrooms, at dinner tables and work, in international forums, and also through protests and court actions. Throughout, it is important that our democratic systems take care to include the opinions and experiences of people who are at the margins of society.

At this point in the world, however, the global human rights system itself is under severe strain for having failed too many people, for being used as a tool of warfare. For some it is simply not in vogue, and is simply viewed as another cog in the wheel of liberal capitalism, that claims the moral high ground without delivering real justice. There is a lot of urgent work that needs to be done to reinvigorate the systems if it is to remain relevant and deliver on its promises. That said, after spending time with students at the competition I feel positive and hopeful.

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