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#HotDocs23 Review: Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella

May 2, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2023 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 27th to May 7th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

In his latest documentary Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella, Canadian director Barry Avrich offers an endearing biography of Rosalie Abella, who became the first Jewish female justice on the Supreme Court of Canada when she was appointed to that position in 2004.

Interviewing her in her home and office, which are filled with colourful knick-knacks, Avrich’s film takes us through Abella’s impressive legal career as she ascended to the Supreme Court, and how her rulings on topics like gender equality in the workplace and same-sex marriage helped pave the way for historic changes, regardless of how controversial her rulings were at the time. On a more personal level, the film details her early life as an immigrant and daughter of Holocaust survivors, how she balanced raising two sons, and her marriage to author and historian Irving Abella, who she doggedly pursued in university.

Abdlla bristles somewhat at comparisons to being Canada’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg (though the superficial comparisons are understandable as the first Jewish women named to their respective country’s highest courts), but the film itself does draw some comparisons to the documentary RBG, with its almost equally glossy approach. The film doesn’t really go that deep into her individual rulings, nor does it need to; it more treats them as undeniable accomplishments in a wholly impressive legal career.

If the film does feel like it borders on hagiography at times, it’s also somewhat hard to avoid this when dealing with such a well-respected figure as Abella. Avrich interviews three former Prime Ministers in the film, who all speak highly of her, including Brian Mulroney who in theory should have been the most ideologically opposed to her, but expresses admiration for her absolute integrity as a juror. It’s a breezy, fast-paced, and somewhat bittersweet film that provides a decent overview of her life and career.

Screenings: Monday, May 1st, 6:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema; Tuesday, May 2nd, 6:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Friday, May 5th, 11:15 AM at Isabel Bader Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here, and the film will also be streaming online across Canada from May 5th to 9th.

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