nziff ’11: Hot Coffee
dir. Susan Saladoff | USA | 2011 | 88 mins.
First-time filmmaker (and former medical malpractice attorney) Susan Saladoff serves up a boiling cup of provocative commentary in her documentary Hot Coffee, which looks at the impact of the tort reform on the US judicial system. Throughout the film, Saladoff offers an engaging presentation on how corporate America has made use of sensationalized lawsuit settlements to garner public opinion against “frivolous” cases.
The film’s opening section focuses on the notorious “McDonald’s case” in which an elderly woman was awarded millions for spilling a cup of hot coffee onto her lap. Saladoff includes a number of street interviews with the public which clearly indicate that the general opinion derives from an uninformed view of the case —people simply believe, having not been told all the details, that it was outrageous for someone to sue over hot coffee. This is predominantly to do with the mainstream media’s coverage of the debacle; the director delves deeper into the issue to expose what really went on and then broadening the issue of tort reform by including more seriously shocking incidents (one involving a gang rape). The film also addresses the issue of employee contracts with hidden clauses, and the problems surrounding corporate friendly judges being somewhat unfairly elected to appeals courts.
Saladoff handles the issues presented extremely well, turning what most would consider a boring topic into one that is interesting and informative as well as entertaining. By incorporating a wide range of interviews—including with luminaries such as Al Franken and John Grisham—along with explanations of the facts by the plaintiffs themselves the film leaves you feeling that you’ve gained an insight into the vulnerable position many Americans are in as a result of their tort system.
The New Zealand International Film Festivals began on July 14 in Auckland; they start in Wellington on July 29, then travel to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout August, and Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton, and, finally, Kerikeri in November.
Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.