- Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella
- Written and directed by Barry Avrich
- Classification N/A; 80 minutes
- Opens in select theatres June 9
If you were to stop the average person on the street and ask them who currently sits on the Supreme Court of Canada, I imagine you’d receive a great deal of blank stares. While the U.S. bench gets all the headlines – sometimes even for the right reasons – there seems to be a blissful ignorance of just what goes on in Canada’s highest court, and who it is making the decisions that affect us all.
Which is all a way of saying that if you don’t already know who Rosalie Abella is, then it is high time you learned – and the best entry point is Without Precedent, a new documentary that explores one extremely remarkable, perhaps underappreciated life.
Abella can, by this point in her life, claim a number of remarkable firsts. The youngest judge in Canadian history. The country’s first female Jewish Supreme Court Judge. And now she is the first Canadian judge, as far as I can tell, to have a feature-length documentary devoted to her myriad achievements. Precedent-breaking, indeed.
Directed by the prolific Canadian documentarian Barry Avrich (The Talented Mr. Rosenberg), Without Precedent doesn’t attempt to innovate the documentary wheel – this is mostly an A-to-B chronicle of a life, following Abella’s journey from being the refugee daughter of Holocaust survivors to a leader in the global justice community. (After her Supreme Court retirement, Abella lept straight into academia, becoming a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and a senior research scholar at Yale Law School).
There are slick talking-head interviews from its subject, her family, admirers and well-meaning critics. There are intriguing snippets of archive footage. And there is some gentle onscreen ribbing. But the film is produced with such a smooth sort of graceful, genuine appreciation that you almost immediately surrender to its charms.
It helps immensely that Abella is a fiercely charming persona, guarded and generous at the same time. But amping things up considerably is Avrich’s decision to make his doc as much a profile as a love story, tracing Abella’s rising career with the trajectory of her devoted marriage to the historian Irving Abella, who appears in interviews here that were conducted before he died in the summer of 2022.
As Avrich captures the couple deep in conversation, he creates a portrait of a union that is as mushily heartwarming as it is deeply inspiring. Case closed.