AFI Docs 2021: Antonio Mendez Esparza on Taking a Stand in “Courtroom 3H”

As he was preparing to make “Courtroom 3H,” Antonio Mendez Esparza took to heart some words he heard from another filmmaker.

“One filmmaker said once, making a movie is like opening the fridge, so basically you don’t go shopping,” Mendez Esparza recalls. “You open the refrigerator and you see what you have and with what you have, you make the movie.”

The director was preparing for his first proper documentary after long treating the preparation for his dramas as if they were nonfiction, spending long periods of time with the people who would eventually appear in his films developing a narrative from their real-life stories. Mendez Esparza wouldn’t give himself that luxury on “Courtroom 3H,” knowing what he wanted, but not necessarily what he would get as he spent a year in and out of a family court in Tallahassee, Florida. During his previous film “Life and Nothing More,” following a son curious about the whereabouts of his father after raised by his hard-working mother, Mendez Esparza had come to learn about the complexities of child custody cases where no decisions are made easily and even solutions that seem to benefit all parties comes with some heartache. While the filmmaker had won the trust of Judge Jonathan Sjostrom to film in his courtroom, it was a moral imperative rather than a technical one that he wouldn’t get in the way of the proceedings with his camera, yet he turns a limited visual perspective into a deep and highly sophisticated study of how the legal system works — and doesn’t — for the broken families that need the court’s guidance to move on with their lives.

With only a handful of angles, Mendez Esparza instead uses the cinematic elasticity of time and the narrow frame to serve as a lack of context that it would seem the judge would share with so many cases on his docket to put the audience in the position of deciding how they might rule before a verdict is rendered, enabling a reflection on personal biases and notions of fairness. When the court is applying the law to emotionally fraught situations that are evaluated in less than a few minutes based on the best arguments either they or their lawyers can make on the spot, its flaws are exposed, but so too the broader society that relies upon it for justice as issues of race and class are always present, even if unaddressed formally in court. Naturally, with every case unique, there’s a variety of emotions inspired by how they unfold, from incredulity to surprise and in actively involving the audience to come to its own conclusions, they all are felt deeply. Following the film’s premiere last fall at the San Sebastian Film Festival, it is debuting stateside at AFI Docs, which is making it available to watch online this weekend, and to mark the occasion, Mendez Esparza spoke about taking a leap of faith to make it, using what was available to him to create the most immersive experience possible and embracing the lack of control he had over what story he could tell.

I’ve heard that this may have had roots in your experience in putting together “Life and Nothing More.” How did it come about?

In a way it’s a personal response, not to “Life and Nothing More,” but to the judicial process, that [as presented in “Life and Nothing More”] was perhaps a bit narrow. I often say that in “Life and Nothing More,” the depiction of the court proceeding and the legal system was very important thematically, but the depiction served the plot, and I thought I missed an opportunity to depict with more texture what happens in the court. Because I spent time in court, I knew the judge and I was also quite surprised to see the scope and the proceedings of this particular dependency court in Florida, so it was my own desire to further understand these proceedings and to learn from them. maybe you remember tapes and it’s like side A/side B — this is a side B of my own journey making this movie.

Were the limitations of how you could place the cameras in the court actually something that opened this up for you? The idea of perspective becomes really interested in this.

We actually struggled a lot whether to use one or two cameras. I honestly only wanted to use one camera [because of] this idea of the purity of the moment. Luckily, I was convinced to try to use two so we could cut and that was a wonderful accident. We thought we were going to just try to film the judge with the second camera, but that shot didn’t quite work as well as we thought, so we tried to move it and we couldn’t really get close to him and we didn’t have a longer lens, and in the end, we started moving that camera a bit and that opened lots of possibilities. Of course in fiction, you’re very aware that camera position is quite everything, but here we thought it was as important, even in how close we could be to characters. We tried to keep most frames a bit open, so we knew it was a very formal piece and we had to be as precise as we could with the limitations we had.

Let’s say our perspective was, “Okay we have to be able to witness the court proceedings as objectively as we can and that gave us certain camera positions that we could use.” Of course, we couldn’t be intrusive in the court, so we had to have a longer lens placed just underneath the judge, and we were there, like in a small barricade hiding. Of course everyone saw us, but we were there a bit like sitting lower with our knees on the floor and we had very small chairs, like lower than children’s chairs, where we could witness [the proceedings], so the camera position was everything.

When you’re filming random hearings, was there something that gave this shape in your mind?

Finding the shape was really difficult in a way because we just filmed and filmed and filmed, hoping that we will find a thread. It was tough because even though we saw the thread, it happened a lot in our first cuts when we showed to the producers that there was a certain element of randomness to it all. The movie was interesting, but [had] no unity, so it seemed a little erratic. Some could say maybe it still is. [laughs] But we tried to give it a focus, [which] for us was the people and the love they feel or the feelings they have versus the system, and the parents making choices and pleading for the kids. That was the thread that united it all and then we had different approaches to these two chapters that the movie is divided into. We thought of four chapters [dividing it up into stories of] mothers, fathers, kids, judges, public servants, [but we decided] let’s do it based on the cases they have. There’s an arraignment, hearing and trial and in the end, we chose hearings and trials, which seems fairly simplistic and hopefully understandable, but it took a long time to find a certain structure to it all.

How much time you spend in each shot becomes part of the drama. Was it hard to find the rhythm?

When we were in the courtroom, we were overwhelmed with emotion and details and at one point, it was really bad [in the edit] because we were afraid to say, “Oh, we loved this moment [in the film]” because somehow after three days, we knew we had to lose it because we knew dramatically it didn’t quite mean much, so we embraced very much this idea of conflict, how long does the conflict last and when the tension disappears from the shot. To find the structure, my editor and I had the response of the fiction filmmaker in a way – when the tension is gone from the scene, the scene is over, which is also in documentaries, but we were trying to make a piece that was quite emotional, then always trying to fight for concision. When is too much? When is too little? When a scene becomes a bit still? It was a very, very slow process and quite challenging because many of the things we loved the very most we lost, often because we couldn’t quite justify a certain dramatic action. We also didn’t want to have the participants be passive, so we tried to make them as active as they could in the situation they are in.

The case involving immigration comes to the fore and given how much of a hot button issue that is, did it rise to the surface as a point of interest?

That case we knew about because in the trials, you see two very brief hearings we had, so we knew that it was coming, so it wasn’t such a punch [as it is in the film], but the lawyer does says and [the father is] going to show up because he’s allowed into the country, so we knew this was going to be quite contested. We had never spent so much time in a court and by spending so much time, you start to understand and appreciate [that] we knew things, but not so much. That was our second trial that we witnessed, and [we left] very moved and the truth is by the end of [all of the] trials, we were a bit unsure of what the verdict could be.

In fiction movies, you often have a side, the good or the bad and in whatever movie it is, you’re cheering for one of them, no? Here, we give you nothing, so you decide who you cheer for, and even for us, we didn’t know anything really, so we just saw and listened to what was exposed in the meetings, and all the themes that were present that day [were] by chance. Of course, [we knew] the things that were discussed were very important and relevant, even of course the lawyers, the judge know this, so it was very much in the zeitgeist of the time.

It’s funny when your fiction films have all come from a place of approaching them as if they’re documentaries that this is your first proper documentary feature. Was it what you thought it would be?

I was very scared of doing it [because] there’s a level of exposure [for the subjects] and they are not acting. This is their real life, so that was a challenge to even decide to make the film in that way. But this is a situation that exists and I do think holding institutions accountable for good or for bad [is important] and I thought the argument could be made that there is a certain public interest of this piece existing. In certain films, there is that responsibility for the creators [where] there is a responsibility that maybe you’re doing something that you shouldn’t do, so I was quite hesitant, but it exists and I hope people enjoy it. Enjoy is hard to say with a movie like this, but at least [I hope] they are touched by the movie and there is a further understanding of some of the issues that are very present in our society. Each of us will respond differently, but I hope it’s a piece that shows issues that are not often discussed in other venues.

“Courtroom 3H” will screen virtually through AFI Docs beginning June 25th through June 27th and will screen in person at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland on June 26th at 4:30 pm.