We are all potential advocates

Director Shameela Seedat’s film about trainee lawyers provides a sort of celebration of youth on this continent and a vision of the next generation of Africans.

Still from film African Moot.

Every year, hundreds of aspiring law students from across the African continent gather in a different host city to hone their legal skills and debate pressing legal questions facing the continent. In 2019, the African Human Rights Moot Court Competition met in Gaborone, Botswana. The fictional “case” involved human rights violations against cross-border refugees who fled political violence in the fictional country of Peradila to its “neighbor” Bentaria (see the full case here). The case highlighted legal issues around political asylum seekers, LGBTQI rights, family separation, and the overarching question of who qualifies as a “refugee.” A truly pan-African event, the competition brings together aspiring lawyers over one week to present both sides of the case, both as applicants and respondents, in three languages (English, French, and Portuguese). The fictional case involved urgent questions and narratives that often intersect with the lives of participants in sometimes painful ways. But for South African documentarian and former law student Shameela Seedat in her new film, African Moot (2022), the real drama is in the competition: who will “win” their case and take the title for their home university, and who will earn the coveted distinction of “best orator.”

In African Moot, Seedat—whose previous credits include Whispering Truth to Power, a documentary about Thuli Madonsela, former South African public protector—takes the audience inside the lives of competitors from across the African continent. Spoiled for choice, Seedat focuses on four main teams from Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda. From reigning champion Makerere University, we follow Jerome and Daniella, who feel the pressure to bring home another win. From the University of Nairobi, we watch the budding friendship and work ethic of teammates Amor and Rachel. From South Africa, we meet Edward, a brilliant young man who connects to the case in very intimate ways, being queer himself and the son of a mother who he came to understand as a refugee in all but name, having fled Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s. From Egypt, we meet Kareem, whose exuberance at meeting other competitors and excitement at taking in the experience of the moot seems to outweigh any competitive edge.

These four teams seem almost perfectly selected to give the audience a sense of the diversity of personalities, motivations, and life histories that competitors bring to the moot. The energy is infectious: some have clearly come to have fun, some to hone and show off their legal and oratory skills, some to defend the honor of their home countries, and some to advocate for the issues at stake. And yet, selecting four teams from the 120 participants was far from easy. As Seedat revealed in an interview, it was really in the edit where the stories of these four teams came to the surface: “a 90-minute film would not do justice to all of the students we had filmed, and we whittled it down organically to what felt most true to … the story of the moot we were telling.” One major cut saw the story of a team of long-term prisoners from Luriza prison in Uganda, competing via video link, omitted from the film. With one team member internally displaced for many years during the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency and another on death row, Seedat and her editorial team (including longtime collaborator and acclaimed documentarian Francois Verster) decided their story deserved “its own separate film.”

Staying true to the spirit of the moot, the film is, in many ways, quite procedural, following the competitors as they conduct their research, endure marathon training sessions, craft legal arguments, and master minute points of case law. And yet, in Seedat’s capable hands, the process becomes as much about the social lives and bonds forged amongst competitors. Complex points of legal procedure become not only accessible, but meaningful and suspenseful. At its heart, it is a story of friendships, of new comrades, of intellectual promise, and of unexpected dramas. Competitors exchange ideas and share experiences from their vastly different social and political contexts—enacting the poignant principle voiced by one character that “to be able to move is to understand people.” Viewers find themselves rooting for their favorites, sharing in the laughter, the joy, the anticipation, and the anxiety. Competitors prepare for their orations as an actor would a performance: pacing the halls, practicing in front of mirrors, and honing their monologues—though in this performance, their audience, eminent judges and legal experts, speak back and challenge their meticulously crafted arguments.

Capturing all of these different angles, Seedat’s camera remains unobtrusive, meditative, and patiently democratic. The film judiciously integrates touches that reflect on the not-so-fictional issues at stake: an intertitle on the scale of refugee movements on the continent; an evocative montage that animates the human hardships of forced migration. Economical in its editing, the film avoids editorializing or sentimentalizing these weightier themes and allows the excitement, pride, tension, and disappointments to emerge naturally from the anticipation-filled competition. In one particularly emotive scene, participants gather for a lecture, and questions of “African” tradition and the legal rights of certain groups come to a head—revealing the limits and continuing challenges that complicate the pan-African idealism that animates much of the film.

Throughout, the film is punctuated with stories, images, and arguments that evoke the central theme of that year’s moot: “we should all understand we’re potential refugees.” One cannot help but sense the urgent resonances with the recent “deal” that will see asylum seekers in Britain resettled in Rwanda, the continued limbo of refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma and Dadaab camps, the violence experienced by refugees and migrants in South Africa, and the devastating Melilla massacre on the Moroccan border. But African Moot has captured another side to this all-too-common story, and indeed another Africa that we rarely see in social documentaries: as these young professionals demonstrate, we are all also potential advocates. Although not her intended goal, Seedat provides a “sort of celebration of youth on this continent” and a vision of the next generation, full of ambition, ideas, and humor, who will take on the challenges facing the continent with passion, empathy, and humanity.

After a World Premiere at the HotDocs Film Festival and sold-out screenings at the Sydney Film Festival, the film will show next at the Durban Film Festival and at screenings in Berlin, Cairo, China, Finland, and Nairobi. A shorter version of the film will be aired on Al Jazeera.

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