Usually, it takes time to get to know people in the films of Antonio Mendez Esparza such as “Here and There” and “Life and Nothing More,” which have long split the difference between nonfiction and narrative films by engaging subjects who are brought into scenarios that reveal the lives quite similar to the ones they lead. There is no such luxury of time in Esparza’s first straight-up feature documentary “Courtroom 3H,” filmed over the course of a year in Tallahassee, Florida where the filmmaker was present for over 300 parental custody cases, though these don’t involve one-time couples fighting over the rights to a child, but parents fighting with the state to retain guardianship over their young children, usually not old enough to have any say in the matter. That leaves the determination of case workers and other officers of the court as the only real insight into the people that appear before Judge Jonathan Sjostrom, other than how he sizes them up himself when they step into the courtroom.
It’s notable that Esparza takes his time before turning the camera on Judge Sjostrom, offering a perspective from the bench as a flood of plaintiffs appear resulting in the effect of coming to the same snap judgements he has to based on the limited information he has, with the decisions made in a matter of minutes surely changing at least the lives of the parent and child forever. As much as it may seem the judge has his biases, “Courtroom 3H” is equally invested in interrogating yours as one parent after another sits accused of abandonment or abuse and you’re left to wonder about not only whether the charges against them are fair, but whether the system, as it’s currently set up, is the best arbiter to determine the suitability of a home when removing a child from their current situation can seem as if it’s a formality, the last thing to take from those who have been deprived of so much else because of their race and class. Increasing the strain further for both the court and the emotions of those who find themselves there is the rising number of cases involving undocumented immigrants whose uncertain status puts them in a particularly precarious position.
While the laws lack nuance, Esparza brings humanity in with his judicious editing, making every decision of who to turn the camera on at any given moment the product of great care and consideration as the weight of the room is often felt on the person in the frame, sometimes yielding surprising results when the high stakes are respected by all. The film’s structure also gives way to two particularly fraught cases that are allowed more time to air their complexities, named after the children involved who you never see — “Elias,” dealing with a Brazilian man who finds it considerably difficult to obtain a Visa to make the court date in order to assert his parental rights to the child after they’ve been taken from the boy’s mother for abuse, but faces an additional complication in how the boy is said to have bonded to the court-assigned caretaker, and “Ela,” involving a mother whose behavior doesn’t fit the guidelines set out for her after concerns are raised about her ability to provide a stable home but makes evident intangibles that she can offer that no one else can to her biological daughter.
As is the case throughout “Courtroom 3H,” there are more questions than answers even after a verdict is rendered, but Esparza reaches a truth about the people there that is both more inspiring than you’d think when no decisions are ever made lightly and the advocates for both the child and parents’ welfare passionately step up to keep that relationship intact when possible while exposing the flaws in a system that can’t always get a full picture of what’s going on. Thankfully, that’s what the filmmaker brings along his camera for.