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

Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella is a heartfelt look at one of Canada’s legal titans. It is a deeply intimate portrait of one woman’s remarkable life and career. It is a reflection of years of work and advocacy. This unflinching look at such an influential jurist paints a picture of a woman who is totally aware of her well-deserved place in history. Her career leaves a legacy still felt today. 

For those uninitiated, Rosalie Abella was one of Canada’s Supreme Court Justices. She served on the Supreme Court from 2004-2021. She forged a decades-long career despite facing discrimination as a Jewish woman. She was born in a displaced persons camp after World War II. Many of her family members were murdered in the Holocaust. Her upbringing informed her vision for a more equitable and inclusive Canada. 

This documentary could have simply been a running list of Abella’s accomplishments. There are so many that continue to influence the lives of Canadians to this day. Her professional experience is so extensive that it could merit a documentary or a book of its own. It’s the right choice to show the humanity behind these momentous decisions. This allows viewers to feel closer to a great legal mind. 

Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella is billed as a unique behind-the-scenes look at one of Canada’s most exceptional jurists. It delivers on this front. Abella’s vulnerability and authenticity lend themselves well to the overall story. The documentary allows this figurehead to be seen as human as she really is. She’s never asked to explain herself. Instead, by getting to know her and where she’s come from, her career is shown in a new light. 

Throughout the documentary, Abella is allowed to be completely in touch with her emotions. Abella is allowed to express and engage in emotions that women in the spotlight often aren’t allowed to. In particular, her reflections on the loss of her husband, Canadian historian Irving Abella. This is the moment in the documentary where she is allowed to completely be herself. The pain clearly continues to have massive repercussions in Abella’s life. Here was a couple so obviously in sync. The world has a massive gap with the loss of Irving Abella. 

Everything about Abella’s story is grounded in her love of family. Evidently, her family has served as a grounding force even while she managed immense chaos throughout her career. She has relied on her family throughout her entire life and they have been the foundation for everything she has ever done. This grounding influence is clear throughout the documentary and she is so fortunate to have had such a support system. 

Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella is a touching and fitting tribute to a woman behind the iconic robes. It is a reflection of the impact that this woman has had on Canadians. It is also a reflection of how Abella has set up the future of Canadian jurisprudence. Her legacy will continue to live on in the Canadian legal system in a tangible way. Hopefully, her vision of a more accepting Canada can one day be realized. 

Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella was featured at the 2023 HotDocs Festival.

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