On the penultimate night of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival (Wednesday, October 5), Motley’s Law, a Danish-produced documentary framed around Kimberley Motley, an outspoken legal eagle (and Milwaukee native) who left the Milwaukee public defender’s office eight years ago to pursue an opportunity to practice law abroad in Afghanistan — of all places — screened and was positively received by a large crowd of festival goers.
In Motley’s Law, Danish filmmaker Nicole H. Horanyi (The Devilles, Naked) chronicles Motley, a graduate of both the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette University as she deftly navigates Afghanistan’s convoluted legal landscape. Originally intending the film to be about the Afghan legal system, Horanyi and an associate approached Motley to be among several lawyers and judges they would follow and question. Armed with a magnetic personality and a no-nonsense demeanor, Motley and her tireless efforts on behalf of locals as well as foreigners who found themselves lost in the sheer vastness of the country’s legal system, quickly became the central focus of the restructured documentary.
The trajectory of Motley’s ascension from a former beauty queen (Miss Wisconsin 2004) to a public defender in Milwaukee to a self-described “international litigator” with a rather impressive success rate (nine out of every 10 cases she took on in Afghanistan went her clients’ way) epitomizes the widely accepted notion that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
With that in mind, it should come as little surprise that Motley had designs on pursuing another career altogether before she ended up pursuing one in the field of law.
“I wanted to be a DJ,” she shared. “I really love music. And I enjoy listening to music. I feel like laws — and the way that I look at laws — is a way for me to really be creative. To sort of change my playlist with different countries and with different cases. So, I use laws like music.”
Following the one-time festival screening, Motley, one of 20 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee alumni being honored for their professional accomplishments by the school this Friday, October 7, shared that the long-running NBC law procedural Law & Order may have been the impetus for her becoming an attorney.
“I remember when I was in high school, my 11th grade teacher told us we had to watch Law & Order [one] night,” Motley said. Due to her strict upbringing, television watching was not an inalienable right in her parents’ household. However, under the guise of education, her parents relented and allowed her to watch the show. She was able to continue watching for the remainder of her time in high school.
Flash-forward to 2008, when Motley became the first and-to-date only foreign attorney licensed to work in Afghanistan when she joined the US State Department’s legal education program.
The wife and mother of three freely admits in the film that earning more money for her work was a motivating factor for pursuing the opportunity, yet her desire to help the disenfranchised flies in the face of that admission. Tellingly enough, a sizeable portion of her caseload (approx. 30-40%) is done pro-bono.
She has litigated cases on every continent, except Antarctica, an impressive achievement considering she had never traveled internationally prior to working in Afghanistan.
Motley’s Law effectively highlights some of the rampant civil unrest within Afghanistan, coupled with the increasing trepidation among some of Motley’s Afghan associates as the US government’s 2014 deadline for troop withdrawal from the country neared. The film also touches base on the difficulty she experienced being so far away from her husband (also a Milwaukee native) and children for long periods of time between return visits. It’s also worth noting that both Milwaukee, as well as the state of Wisconsin, are referenced throughout the documentary’s 84-minute running time.
A personal goal of Motley’s is to educate as many people as possible about the laws and what their legal rights are in different jurisdictions around the world so they can fight for themselves.
“By and large, the majority of the population in the US and beyond does not have access to lawyers. So [the film] is not about me, and getting attention for me. It’s much bigger than that.”