All Rise/Jay Shapiro (Director), Tomer Treger (Jessup participant), Jonathan Morgan (Jessup participant)

Every year, students from over 550 law schools in more than 80 countries participate in the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition, a simulation of a fictional dispute between fictitious countries held before the International Court of Justice, the judicial organ of the United Nations. Students pore over a compromis—a detailed writeup of the case—for a year before presenting their arguments before the ICJ. All Rise director Jay Shapiro followed seven Jessup 2014 competitors, hoping to find out why they’re devoting their lives to the study and practice of international law. To see the beginning of the final round of the 2014 Jessup competition, click here. To see the trailer for All Rise, click here. To read the 2014 compromis, click here. In 2015, the compromis will present questions of treaty interpretation and applicability in the face of changed circumstances; the propriety of countermeasures; and procedural and substantive issues raised by the secession of a province from one country and its annexation by another. The 2016 Jessup compromis will include questions concerning the legality of mass surveillance programs and the international legal consequences of cyberattacks attributable to states. Availability: DocNYC Nov. 14th and Nov. 19th at the IFC Center, New York City. Thanks to Linda Altman, Susan Senk PR, for arranging this interview. 


DT:  What’s the point of a moot court?


JS: I didn’t know what a moot court was before I took on this film. What I loved about it was the simulation. It’s a fake case, with two fake countries, and a simulation of the ICJ, the International Court of Justice. The fact that it’s fake is really, really important to the entire endeavor because there’s no emotional bias involved.  You’re not emotionally invested—you have to pretend you are and get into that mind-set—but you’re not actually emotionally invested,  so it can’t cloud your objective approach to the law. When we talk about international law, there’s always a debate over how much of it is really law and how much of it is politics. It might be 99 percent politics and 1 percent law in the real world, but in the moot court, it’s 100 percent law.


DT:  So it sort of gives you muscle memory for executing a case without emotional bias.


JM:  Whatever the balance between politics and law is in the real world, we’d like to see it shift toward more law, less politics. In the moot, you’re at the ideal balance for that.


DT:  When I think of international law, I think of a mutually agreed-upon canon of rules and regulations, which is probably the Platonic ideal. But when introducing the film at the UN, Mr. Hisashi Owada [current member and former president of the ICJ] compared the Jessup to a martial arts competition, where the true test of one’s skill is competing against someone from a different tradition. To what extent is international law universally accepted, and to what extent is it a cultural battlefield where lawyers are simply contending with different traditions?


TT:  International law is still in its process. It’s far from achieving its goals, in the United Nations, in different tribunals, like the International Court of Justice, or in state practice itself. Everyone agrees there’s still a lot to do, and I think it’s somewhere in the middle between being a conflict between different traditions and being universally accepted, but we need to remember that it’s actually a relatively new notion. Up until the 20th century, each group of people, whether a state or a tribe, was pretty much isolated from each other in terms of language and the ability to know other cultures. This whole concept of international law emerged very quickly in the second half of the 20th century, so I think that compared to the short amount of time it’s been around, the progress is quite remarkable. The Jessup is a good manifestation of the breadth of its reach and how many people it’s come to influence.


JM: The universal scope of international law is often measured by the number of states that participate in the large organizations or the large universal treaties, so the number of states that have joined the United Nations is a reflection of how universal international law as a concept has become. In that respect, it’s near to its aim and its end goal. However, while having a large degree of universal acceptance, it is also still a strong battlefield of cultural differences, because international law as a concept has to also battle with and go alongside state sovereignty and independence of states, i.e., the rights of states to govern their own operations, territories, people, etc. So first of all, states must voluntarily accept the rules that apply in international law, whether it’s agreement between states or agreement between regions, then they decide to apply it. Once that is done, it can merge the gap of cultural differences that continue to exist. But where it is not done, you may find, even within the scope of its universal application, rogue states and states that continue to become what they call persistent objectors to the rules of international law.


DT:  Jay, when you asked the students why they participate in the Jessup, they came up with a very wide range of reasons, from very personal to very standard. Did you ask everyone the same questions, and what questions were they?


JS:  I definitely asked the standard, Why do you want to do this? In the case of Areej, the Palestinian woman, her answer was very personal: I want to do this because I want to fix the situation where I live. The answer was very standard in Singapore, which is a very competitive environment and where the Jessup is sort of a career maker: I just want to win this thing.

I wanted to tap into the psychology of why they were interested in this thing, because international law is such a strange, flimsy idea. Why were they so dedicated to it, and, in particular, why this moot?  As soon as they gave me anything about why they wanted to do this, the questions began to diverge. Their answers took us to a lot of surprising places. So the starting point for each student was the same, but after question two it was the student leading me to where they wanted to take me and show me where their motivation lay.


DT:  So they basically determined their own narrative.


JS:  I hope so. It’s funny making a film with law students, who are very political in their answers and say the right thing. As a filmmaker you want to get some off-the-cuff oops moments, but these students are really good at not doing that, which is a credit to their profession, but they did let us in beyond giving us the cookie-cutter answers.


DT:  To what extent are the law and the practice of law, both international law and state law, a mixture of the personal and the universal?


JM: [In the Jessup], the content of the argument is the case. It is the universal: These are the rules we have studied, this is the issue they have given us, and we need to apply the two of them to come up with the solution that serves our country the best. The style, the approach, the process is all personal. My particular delivery style, or my thinking about the problem, may be very unique and very different—perhaps not as good, but very different—from many of my competitors’. So that personal element brings out strengths, and it brings out ways of thinking and tackling the issue, whereas the issues, rules of law, and cases that are applicable to the issues, are standard; the same for each individual. That blend, that combination of the two, produces these unique answers and these unique submissions that may inevitably solve the intertangled web of international issues that the problem provides.


TT:  Jessup is special for being a very demanding and relatively long process, so throughout the entire process it feels like you really are invested in the country you represent. I was, for example, for Ritania, which is the respondent country. After a few months of defending my country, both orally and in writing, I felt that if someone said something bad about Ritania, I would almost take it personally—a country that is entirely fictional, that I didn’t even know a month before beginning the Jessup. Their compromis is very long, which makes you feel so invested in it that when you finally step on the podium in Washington to speak to the judges, you really feel—I really felt—that I represented a country that exists and that the facts really exist, and that I wanted to win. It almost makes you think that it’s not really fictional, which is interesting.


DT:  When the judges were talking amongst themselves about the quality of the students’ arguments, I was surprised to hear one of the judges say, “I’m not into formula, and they should have known that.”  I guess I didn’t realize to what extent a judge’s personality and preferences influence how a case will be argued and decided. What’s up with that?


TT:  Especially in common law countries.


JM: Certainly for the moot, and in my limited time practicing civil litigation in Jamaica, you must not only provide the argument but you must also appeal to the interest of the listener. In the moot, that comes across in a very unique way, because the judging panel is concerned with particular issues that ought to be argued in particular ways. It requires a great deal of flexibility on the part of the speaker to satisfy those needs and somehow prevail for his or her country. That spills over in a very real way into the civil practice I’m exposed to, where these judges are considered very normal, very personable, and very interested in hearing certain things. If you are able to deliver that, you simply may succeed for your client where the other side has not, and it had nothing to do with the content of your legal argument.


TT:  Depressing a little, isn’t it?


DT:  Jay, I don’t want to do a spoiler alert, but one of the unusual features of your film is that you didn’t follow the winners. Why did you make that choice?  And how did you decide whom to follow?


JS:  We decided who to follow before the competition began. We met with White & Case, the competition sponsor, and selected a mix of countries that covered the globe. We actually filmed in eleven countries—a mixture of places that historically do well, and then just some inherently interesting places like Palestine and Siberia. The odds that we were going to get the winner were pretty low to begin with, and we were actually pretty lucky to get someone in the finals, but who won or who didn’t just wasn’t that important to the narrative we wanted to tell. The film doesn’t really get into the weeds of the case that they were arguing; you don’t even really find out the details; we wanted to take a step back and do a more global approach towards the students who were involved in this thing and why. We wanted to open up a conversation about international law generally, which hopefully the film succeeds in doing.


DT:  In the film, Abhinav, one of the Indian students, remarked that most revolutionaries are law students. Do you find a tension between the conservative aspects of law and the revolutionary possibilities that it presents?


TT:  I think that law, in the larger context, governs how we behave as a society. It’s what makes a society more organized, and it restricts capricious behaviors. That’s the way I look at it if we look historically at law. I think that we can harness law however we want, and the fact that it’s become very, very complicated and fearful to people—that it’s something you always need lawyers to take care of—is not a good thing, in my opinion. The one thing that makes me believe in law, which I remind myself of constantly, is that in the end it’s rules that we the people made throughout time, and we can change them accordingly as time goes by. Therefore we as a whole should not be afraid of them.


JS:  Abhinav also said, “When you think of lawyers today, you have Suits and Boston Legal, but you don’t think about Gandhi, who was also a lawyer by training.” After he said that, I went through the list and thought, He’s right—Gandhi, Mandela, Lincoln, all these people had legal backgrounds. I won’t speak for Abinhav, but I think it’s almost to your point:  If you want to be a revolutionary, you have to know the rules first to know what you’re changing. You can either stay in the system and change it from within, or you can step out of it and attack, but either way, you have to start by knowing the rules, which is what Gandhi did. He was living under British-controlled India, went to law school, and started practicing law. Apparently he wasn’t a very good lawyer, but he knew the law, and he didn’t like the law, so he changed it. But if you don’t know it, you don’t know what you don’t like. So to your question, you can stay in the system to change it, which I think these guys [i.e., Tomer and Jonathan, interviewed here] are on their way to doing, but you can also step out at any moment and go lead a march down Broadway because you know what you’re marching against.


JM: I believe Abhinav added a quotation from Gandhi that in a perfect world, we will not need lawyers and that in a perfect world we will be capable of dealing with the disputes ourselves.What I found profound about that statement is that he did not say that in a perfect world we will not have disputes, which touches on the fact that disputes themselves help create and solidify and fortify who we are as individual societies. I think it’s absolutely profound and where Gandhi is leading, to the point where you can step out of a system in order to change it.

I think the conservative and revolutionary aspects of international law may find themselves in tension where Gandhi’s practice outside the system may not be in conformity with that conservative concept of international law, but there are also instances where those two aspects, those ideas, are not in tension. It is my thinking that, for example, the recent development of the International Criminal Court is somewhat of a revolutionary court, because it specifically covers the areas of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Each of these are instances where regimes may change, so the scope of the International Criminal Court is attacking instances of revolutionary movements. And its purpose is to make the conservative aspect of law, the legal rules which the parties voluntarily signed and agreed to, match the revolutionary practice to curtail anything that was done beyond what it should have.


DT:  It could also lead to regime change.


JM:  Absolutely.


DT:  Tomer, at the end of the film you spoke about equality in international law. What did you mean?


TT: I was taking a principle that we use all the time, sometimes even as a metaphor, not even literally, and take for granted just because we were fortunate enough to be born into societies where this exists, at least on a certain level. The fact that we’re now fortunate enough to have it does not mean that we should take it for granted. It took such a long time for any society to really materialize certain things, equality being one of them, that sometimes I feel I need to step back from where I live and from what I enjoy, look back at certain things that I have every day, and think about them and understand that they did not just happen. People worked really hard for them. I used equality as an example just to show that it doesn’t simply exist; it took a long process to make it happen.


DT:  Jonathan, you come from Jamaica. Was there any sense of imperialism at Jessup?


JM: The Jessup organizers attempt to ensure that the teams remain anonymous. The Jessup judges may say informally that that is not the case in practice, but they make a lot of strides to keep the identity of the teams and their backgrounds or their countries a secret.


DT:  How do they do that?


JM:  They say that if you disclose the name of your school or your country, you’re disqualified. They do not put up anything but numbers when they’re identifying the teams.


TT:  Your accent gives it away a little bit.


JM: They hear a Caribbean speak and they automatically know where you’re from. The sense of imperialism that you’re asking about could have been apparent, but I personally did not find it so. I personally did not see that because I sound a little Jamaican, I was not given respect in the courtroom or that I was expected to not know or not produce a solid argument. Jessup is one of the few international competitions where people from our small islands would sense that.


DT:  Again for Jonathan: you made a statement in the Q&A afterwards that anything is possible. What did you mean?


JM: My favorite quotation, since high school days, is Marianne Williamson’s “Your greatest fear is that you are powerful beyond measure.” She begins her poem, “Your greatest fear is not that you are inadequate; your greatest fear is that you are powerful beyond measure. It is your light, and not your darkness, that most frightens you.” It’s a poem that touches on the fact that we are at some very subconscious level petrified of standing out, and I think it’s the loudest in the small societies, where we come from. It may not be so in wonderful Manhattan, but in small societies, there’s some very subconscious practice of fitting in. It’s detrimental to advancement, and I think that is something that has pushed me to not only see myself outside the scope of where I have come from but also to strive towards achieving absolutely anything. Jessup is a wonderful start in the context of student life for achieving that goal.


DT:  One more question for each of you: What did you learn from the Jessup, and what are you doing now?


JS: Since I didn’t know what the Jessup was before, I learned a lot of law. I learned to be open and to come into problems without a bias before I approach them. I read the compromis that they were arguing, and I thought that I sort of knew what it was about. But when I started to really learn what it is about, I started to reread it from different angles. Then I started to go beyond the compromis and watch what was going on in the news and think about it in a really different way. The endeavor of international law, and the Jessup as this microcosm, forces you to take a step outside the news. Just for one second you step back and take a broader view and look at it for a moment, and then you start to realize what your biases were before you got into it. It made me way more optimistic and hopeful. I think this is a hopeful film. You can get in patterns of watching news and seeing the bad things that are happening and start to take this really pessimistic view of the world, but when you take one step back from it and take a look, I think we’ve achieved a lot of really great things. Statistically we live in the most peaceful time in human history, which is a crazy thing when you watch the news. But just statistically, you’re least likely to die a violent death now than in any other time in history. When you watch the news, you don’t see that.

But the potential for things to go catastrophically wrong is also rising. Just because of destructive technology and where we’re headed, the stakes are getting higher. So we need this to work, and I simply realized just how important this entire endeavor is and how much we need it to work—the Jessup in particular and the ICJ, the judicial arm of the UN. As imperfect as the UN is and how much we complain about how clunky it is, we actually need it to work. We don’t have another choice. So while at times we may think, Let’s just scrap it, we actually can’t. We can’t go back. There’s no way to turn this ship around.

One day I asked one of the judges, “If you read someone’s argument, can you guess where they’re from?” He said no—that if it was written by a  good lawyer, you have no idea. It could be a Jamaican, it could be an Indian, a Singaporian, an American. The objectivity of international law at its best is where we’re headed. At the end of the Jessup, a case is resolved. As these guys keep mentioning, it’s a fictional case. There are no Amaleans or Ritanians. No one’s lives are actually at stake. But in the end, we see how it “should” work. Conflict is resolved or settled without anyone killing each other. That’s what we’re trying to get after. So even though the case is fictional, seeing it work gives you a little hope that we can see it work in the real world.

And you start to see small examples of where it does. When you start to learn the language of international law, like I did over the course of the two years of making this film, you start to see it in every single news article that comes out, even articles that don’t feel like international law. I always bring up the example of Vladimir Putin. When he made his actions in Crimea—invade is a legal term, so I have to be careful about using it—he used the language of international law by putting out a principle about having an obligation to protect Russian-language speakers in Crimea. As I learned through the Jessup, that actually has some flimsy connection to a real principle of international law; protection in times of emergency and obligation. But just looking at that, I saw that Putin actually—whether he has to or believes he has to, because it’s all self-enforced—is playing the game of international law. And just by playing the game, or even pretending to play the game, lives are saved. If Crimea had happened two hundred years ago, it would have been a bloodbath beyond compare. It’s still not a good situation, but it’s not nearly as bad as it would have been had we not had this framework that he is clearly a part of, whether he believes it or not or wants to be a part of or not. So that’s what I learned in the Jessup—how to read the news differently.


TT:  I would say that the two greatest lessons I took from my Jessup experience are on the personal level. The first is acknowledging that hard work is rewarded. There were many challenges that we had to overcome, like writing in English, which is not our team’s mother tongue, and my personal ability to do litigation. The second thing is the fact that the complexity that Jessup brings every year in the compromis, and the arduous work you have to do in order to solve it, brings to me a degree of humility that I will apply in the future to any sort of problem solving, in law or in other fields. I will be much more sensitive to complexities. Previously, when I read the news, I would either avoid the complexities or think they were much easier than they really were, but because the Jessup really makes you dig into it, you see that no matter how much you think you’re there, someone from another team, or your coach, or even yourself after a few days, will make you see it’s not that easy.

As far as your question about what I do now:  I’m with the Israeli mission to the United Nations. The UN is divided into different committees. The sixth committee is the committee doing legal work. In the UN, everything that is legal is international, because it’s an international organization. I see what I’m doing now as continuing the vision that started back in Jessup, which was the first step. I’m seeing not only how much knowledge I gained there but also the tools being materialized every day in the UN. My perspective on the UN is similar to Jay’s in the fact that even though there may sometimes be arguments about its effectiveness or neutrality, we have no other choice.


JM:  There are two quotations in the film that capture something I got from the Jessup in a very apparent way. The first one is “If you look into the room at the orientation seminar, you will see six hundred or so people who are likely to be changing the world in ten or twenty years.” The second one is “If you put two people whose governments and whose leaders are not even speaking into a room together and they are communicating and having amicable relations, it has the potential to significantly transform the world.” Those two statements I think embody the deep underlying value of what the Jessup brings to the world in a very real way.

The Jessup has the potential to change relations between states in the future. After the screening at the UN I had a discussion with an Egyptian master’s student who’s volunteering for a mission at the UN. It was her view that the step toward world peace requires first a step of empathy. Sensitivity and consideration for the uniqueness, the differences, the conceptual ideas that one state may have that are different from your own are necessary ingredients for the respect and international relations that world peace requires. I think the Jessup at its core provides a catalyst for the future empathy of states. In relation to your question about where I am now, I am practicing as a civil and commercial litigator at DunnCox, a law firm in Jamaica. I do the grunt work of running to court and arguing cases whenever they come to my desk, and it’s an absolute pleasure.


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