Secrets of the Jury Room, video, 53 mins, screening on SBSTV 8.30pm 15 July 2004.

The Corporation, 145 mins, rated PG, opening in cinemas in Sydney and other capital cities on 2 September 2004, other cinemas to follow.  Screening on SBS TV in early 2005.

This year, the 51st Sydney Film Festival showcased more than 280 feature films, documentaries and short films. Two documentaries in particular deal with issues that will interest lawyers.

Secrets of the Jury Room is an Australian documentary directed by experienced documentary-maker Aviva Ziegler.  This is a fascinating experiment designed to show how juries really work.  Of course, no one can film the deliberations of a jury in a real-life trial, so the film makers set up a fictional criminal trial, presided over by retired Supreme Court judge George Hampel QC, and with real barristers Tom Molomby SC and Elizabeth Fullerton SC.  A young man is accused of killing his terminally ill lover. Was it suicide, assisted suicide, murder, manslaughter, or death by accident?  We see an edited version of the mock trial that was held over one weekend at Sydney’s historic Darlinghurst Court.

The role of the judge, the barristers and the witnesses is minimal: the film’s focus is firmly on the juries.  What makes the film work is that the filmmakers empanelled two juries to hear the same evidence.  It is the contrast between the juries that tells us most about how they work.  For example, most jurors seem to make up their minds almost straight away, and vigorous debate begins as soon as the doors close behind the jury.

The filmmakers faced an enormous editing job.  It must have been a logistical nightmare to reduce around 36 hours of film to one.  The process took 12 weeks. But the material is presented coherently – even if the facts are a little rushed at beginning.  There is so much interesting material in the hour that it could well have been expanded into a mini-series.

Another documentary that will interest lawyers is The Corporation, a Canadian film that examines the phenomenon of the corporation from various angles: historical, legal, and even psychological (a personality test diagnoses the corporation as a psychopath!).  That, of course, indicates the critical standpoint of the filmmakers: they are generally against the corporation, and they roam all over the place finding damning evidence against it.  There are around 40 talking heads to listen to, from Professor Noam Chomsky and documentary-maker Michael Moore to Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, former Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell and Tom Kline, Vice President of Pfizer Inc.

At nearly 2 1/2 hours, it’s a long film.  At times it drags, mainly due to what I see as a weakness of structure and organisation.  There are headings aplenty to divide the film up, but they don’t reveal an analytical structure.  The filmmakers just keep piling evidence up against various corporations, attempting to incriminate “the corporation” itself.

Given its length, The Corporation could have done with more historical background, a more rigorous legal examination of the corporation, and perhaps fewer examples of “bad” corporations.  And some of the filmmakers’ assertions are questionable.  For example, the film begins with the statement that “150 years ago, the corporation was a relatively insignificant entity.”  What about the South Sea Bubble and the British and Dutch East India Companies?  What about the great British corporations formed by Royal Charter?  Lawyers will find other things to quibble with as well.  And that’s interesting in itself since the writer, Joel Bakan, is a law professor with degrees from Oxford, Dalhousie and Harvard Universities.  But despite my reservations, I found The Corporation to be an ingenious, entertaining and visually creative look at an entity that impinges on all our lives, both professional and personal.