Film festivals are great places to be introduced to unique, memorable characters such as Kim Motley. The star of Nicole Nielsen Horanyi’s documentary “Motley’s Law,” which had its world premiere last night at the Chicago International Film Festival, is certainly a fascinating one. The film about her is a bit formless and frustrating, but Motley is such a captivating personality that her presence gets one over many of the filmmaking's speed bumps.
When democracy came to Afghanistan, it also meant an attempt at a judicial system, one that blends both Afghan Law and Sharia Law. Kim Motley, answering the call of student loans and a remarkable financial opportunity, traveled to Kabul and became the only American practicing law in the war-torn country. She defends US and European clients, primarily, but also does pro bono work for women’s rights in the country. At one point, we see her meet with a woman in jail for refusing to have sex with her husband’s friend. It’s a country in which women are still defined as property, and Motley uses her unique position to advocate for people who don’t have much of a voice. In fact, I wish “Motley’s Law” focused on this aspect of its subject’s unique situation more. Instead, Horanyi goes for a very free-form approach to chronicling its subject, which lacks structure too much to really have impact, as we go with Motley to client meetings, Skype conversations with her husband and arguments with Afghani officials.
On that last note, there’s a certain fearlessness to Motley’s approach that is admirable—she’s described by one translator as “the stubborn woman.” What one takes away from “Motley’s Law” most of all is that Kim Motley doesn’t respond to adversity the way that many of us would. In the opening scene, she’s returning to her Kabul home after a grenade has been thrown through the window. Most people would never come back. She almost casually talks about bombings and gunfire where she’s trying to make a living (and even change the world a bit). This is the way it is. Just hold your head up, do what’s right, try to make some cash, and move forward. That message of “Motley’s Law” is its most successful element, embodied in the very person of Kim Motley—she may have a unique job but that’s because she’s not your average lawyer.