Judges Under Pressure – ★★★★ (Human Rights Watch Film Festival)

Judges Under Pressure – ★★★★ (Human Rights Watch Film Festival)

With engaging subjects, Kacper Lisowski can focus his rightfully angry documentary Judges Under Pressure on the fight for Poland’s independent judicial system. A vital documentary.

Democracy in Poland is hanging by a fragile thread. Facing arrest and fines if they issue rulings that are not to the government’s liking, judges join their fellow citizens and take to the streets. Since regaining power in 2015, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) has portrayed judges as elitist and incompetent at best and as dissidents at worst.

Kacper Lisowski’s film is as one-sided as it gets, and rightly so, as I imagine we as an audience would not particularly want to hear what the other side have to say due to how much they are altering the country. However, with Judges Under Pressure, Lisowski pulls us directly into what has been happening under so many of our noses. We have maybe heard of specific laws being passed, like the horrendous abortion law, but may not exactly know the full scale.

Lisowski keeps the focus of Judges Under Pressure on the emotional side; we need to see the struggles, the pain that these good people are going through, to humanise. If we were to be presented with all the facts and figures, we would be watching a very long documentary. By striking to the core and the emotional, we are able to be pulled in by what Lisowski has to say. There will be plenty of time to research what is going on. Here we are just being told what has been going on in the most direct way.

With Igor Tuleya and Waldemar Żurek, we have two protagonists that we can pull and hope for. They are complex men who have complex lives, yet we are charmed by them. Yes, they are intense but considering what has been going on in their lives, that is expected. However, they also have heart, and that is a testament to the strength of Lisowski as a filmmaker that he is able to get all of the subjects to be that comfortable with his camera.

This is an ever increasingly urgent matter for the people in Poland. As such, Lisowski wastes no time in making us aware of what is happening and why it matters. He starts the film in a sprint, and thanks to his team and some very sharp editing, we can pick everything up as it goes. As a result, the film flies by once we are as up to date as we need to be.

In the middle of Judges Under Pressure, a politician says that some judges have been playing a dangerous game. That game is that they are not following exactly what the government wants them to do. So, their only option is to break them up and make sure that they fall in line and get the judges in who will side with them. It is an impossible situation that a country in Europe would act this way. As the elected politicians call them, the supposed judicial aristocracy are men and women who are simply trying to do their jobs.

We read messages between someone from the Ministry of Justice who wants to take down a judge and a known online troll in a striking exchange. This is all planned to orchestrate the downfall of someone who has put their life into serving the public. The fear is omnipresent in all these judges. In the blink of an eye, their worlds and their families’ worlds could be turned upside down because of decisions that they make in court.

Lisowski, let’s hope to come through in his film, while all seems to be against our judge’s side at present. That may not always be the case, and if people are fighting for the right cause, as these incredible men and women, then change may happen. Will it happen for Poland anytime soon? That is up in the air, but we can only hope and keep some semblance of optimism.


Judges Under Pressure will be playing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and is available to stream across the UK and Ireland between 17-25 March via https://ff.hrw.org/london

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