What do Polynesian football players in Utah and the first woman to be named a judge in a Palestinian Sharia court have in common?

Erika Cohn, a documentary filmmaker born and raised in Salt Lake City, finds both of them fascinating.

“I’m really inspired by character-driven narratives that have some sort of social issue or some sort of conversation of where we’re at in the world,” said Cohn during a recent trip home.

Cohn — who co-directed the 2015 documentary “In Football We Trust,” about Polynesian teens in Utah using football as a way to change their lives — is working now to get her new movie, “The Judge,” in front of audiences nationwide. The movie opens Friday at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City, and Cohn will be in attendance for Q&As after the 7 p.m. screenings Friday and Saturday.

“The Judge” follows Kholoud al-Faqih, the first woman named to be a judge in a Palestinian Sharia court in Ramallah, in the Palestinian territory on Israel’s West Bank.

Cohn first encountered Faqih on a 2012 trip to the West Bank, during a filming break in “In Football We Trust.” Cohn had received a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship in Israel and the West Bank, teaching film and mentoring local filmmakers, and doing post-graduate research in Islamic feminism.

A friend invited her to a meeting in Ramallah, where Palestinian women were discussing reform in the Sharia law system — a religious court that, like rabbinic courts in Israel, aims to apply theology to the day-to-day problems of divorce, child custody and alimony.

(courtesy Idle Wild Films) Kholoud al-Faqih, the first woman judge of a Palestinian Sharia court, hears a case in a scene from filmmaker Erika Cohn's documentary "The Judge."

That word, Sharia, is often used in the West as a synonym for religious extremism. Cohn argues that’s a misperception based on “a negative, really aggressive form of the law,” and she hopes her movie will “provide people with a nuanced understanding of Sharia.”

At the meeting, amid photos of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, she heard Faqih — sitting amid male jurists in their traditional flat white hats, called tarboushes — talk passionately about applying Sharia equally to men and women.

“She had this really special presence that captivated me from the get-go,” Cohn said.

After the meeting, Faqih invited Cohn to sit in on her court proceedings, in a cramped conference room where she hears between 40 and 60 cases a day.

“She’s part judge, part attorney, part marital counselor and part therapist, and the way she was adjudicating these cases was beyond impressive to me,” Cohn said of Faqih’s court.

Eventually, the filmmaker was allowed to place tiny GoPro cameras unobtrusively to capture the courtroom drama. She also followed Faqih as she made house calls to women having domestic problems.

“She sees her role as educating women about their rights,” Cohn said. “She really takes it upon herself to educate people about the law.”

In the film, Cohn also chronicles the wave of chauvinism Faqih faced from male judges and clerics. Cohn found one Islamic scholar, Hussam al-Deen Afaneh, who vehemently opposes the idea of women Sharia judges, a challenge to interview. “Part of me is sitting there wanting to debate him,” she said, “but I’m letting him speak because this is an opportunity for him to voice his opinions, which we need in the film.”

Getting funding for “The Judge” was another challenge, Cohn said, but it was made easier thanks to one of her mentors: Utah-based producer Geralyn Dreyfous.

“I’ve literally known [Erika] since she was 14,” Dreyfous said. The producer met Cohn, now 31, when she was a student at Skyline High School, taking film classes at the teen media nonprofit Spy Hop Productions.

“She was extremely self-possessed,” Dreyfous recalled of the teen Cohn. “She had a very good sense of both her personal identity, and also being really curious about other worlds and other worldviews. She was also very film literate, so she was consuming a lot of really great media, and to some degree self-taught in terms of what she liked and what she watched.”

Cohn said Dreyfous was so taken by one of her short films, about growing up in an interfaith family in predominantly Mormon Utah, Dreyfous screened it with the Oscar-winning “Born Into Brothels,” for which she served as an executive producer, at some events.

After watching Cohn’s development in college, Dreyfous recommended her to co-direct “In Football We Trust” with Tony Vainuku, a fellow Salt Laker. Cohn, as a Utahn and a high school athlete, related instantly to the story.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn, co-directors of "In Football We Trust," are photographed at the Sundance premiere of their documentary in Salt Lake City in 2015.

Vainuku, Dreyfous said, “knew the story personally. He lived it, as a football player and someone who grew up here in the Polynesian community.” Cohn, on the other hand, “could really shape the arc of the characters they were following. … Tony was so immersed in the community, it was hard for him to step out and see who were the real characters emerging. She had good instincts there.”

Vainuku and Cohn had a true collaboration, Dreyfous said. “He respected her, and she respected and was very deferential to him,” she said. “She was able to learn, culturally, what this story felt like.”

With “The Judge,” Dreyfous’ backing has helped open doors. After a short theatrical run, hopscotching around festivals and a few arthouse theaters, the movie will have its TV premiere in November on PBS’ “Independent Lens” series (where “In Football We Trust” also aired after it premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival).

Dreyfous said Cohn “is absolutely going to have a very healthy career as a director,” and expects Cohn to go beyond documentaries into narrative films. “I see her as a young director to watch, because she’s just kind of hitting her stride right now,” Dreyfous said.

When Cohn does, Dreyfous will likely be a part of it. “I don’t want to make a film without Geralyn, ever,” Cohn said.


The Judge

• Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens Friday, May 11.

Rating • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for mild language and discussion of sexuality and domestic violence.

Running time • 82 minutes.

Like the woman at its heart, director Erika Cohn’s documentary “The Judge” is complex and engaging. Cohn follows Kholoud al-Faqih, the first woman to serve as a judge in a Sharia law court in Ramallah. In her tiny courtroom in Ramallah, in the Palestinian territories, Judge Faqih listens to couples talk about breaking up and battling for custody of their children, trying to apply common sense and the Quran’s teachings to each case. When she’s not adjudicating family law, the judge works to maintain her position in the face of sexist attitudes from male judges and Islamic scholars. Cohn gives us intimate but unobtrusive looks at the cases, proving that courtroom drama is riveting and tension-filled in any language. She also creates a warm-hearted portrait of a woman whose pursuit of fairness becomes a trailblazing effort toward equality in the Muslim world.

— Review by Sean P. Means