Directed by Joseph Sorge
Narrated by Drew Pinsky
The dollars and cents of American divorce are the subject of this blunt, realistic film populated by a series of postmodern characters who are afflicted by a series of circumstances they were unprepared to face. The problem has deep roots. America’s family courts were born in the 1950s, in an era of economic boom and social well-being. Their aim was to preserve the right to divorce in extreme circumstances.
Over the decades, however, they have slowly degenerated. Sixty years ago the rate at which marriages broke down was insignificant. Divorce was seen more as a social crime than a legal process for obtaining the dissolution of marriage.
Then law-makers, judges, psychologists, and religious authorities came up with the idea of simplifying the procedure to make it less traumatic. Systems were created to terminate the conjugal bond in a friendly and sincere way.
Between 1969 and 1980 the divorce rate tripled. State marriage laws have gone from around 20 pages to 2,000 pages. The result has been an exponential jump in the price of the divorce process. Family courts have caved in before the arrival of new and aggressive procedural tactics. Powerful lawyers, sensing the change, have entered the business, giving rise to a new industry.
Every year, divorce costs US$50 billion. Ironically, thanks to the involvement of experts, each of whom charges a heavy fee, the divorce process often lasts longer than the marriage. Consider the exhaustive documents that will determine which of the spouses is better suited to take care of children. These require meetings that cost thousands of dollars and need to be repeated many times. “Great sums of money, which could have been used to educate one’s children, are burned and wasted this way,” explains the head of New Jersey’s family court, Thomas Zampino.
This searing documentary explains how a family court functions. Incredibly, 95 percent of couples who present themselves to a court are not in conflict or disagreement. It is the system itself, geared to the victory of one spouse over the other, which has them fighting over their rights, the care of children, and property. In the mosaic of testimonies during the process, people of every economic and social condition make their appearance. Battles in a family court are like Armageddon, the Biblical end of the world, says a family judge with decades of experience in the field.
In the worlds of the documentary, “In criminal courts we see evil people showing their worst side, while in family courts we observe good natured people on their worst behaviour.”
We see husbands who end up in prison because they could not pay to maintain their ex-wives who, according to law, must be guaranteed the same financial conditions they enjoyed before divorce. There is the paradox of second wives who are forced to work in order to sustain their husbands’ former wives. There are draconian orders from judges, deciding what kind of clothes the children should wear, and what type of vacations they must enjoy, regardless of the fact that the divorced parents do not have enough money.
Alongside these absurd decisions, the documentary displays judges, psychologists, and millionaire lawyers, living in their mansions in Malibu and Bel Air. These contrast with people suffocated by debt and unsmiling young husbands who have lost everything. We see people of every age desperate for solutions; children taken hostage by one of the two parties, hoping to obtain more maintenance; private investigators that work for one of the two spouses with the sole aim of spying on the lifestyle of the other in order to gain more leverage in the case.
On the one hand, the documentary is a journey among the luxurious mansions of Los Angeles and Boston, properties owned by the judges and lawyers. It is a portrait of the corruption of people who work for a common objective: to prolong the time it takes for a case to proceed. On the other, it is a journey of desperation by destroyed families.
Divorce Corp’s strength is that it dares to offer some solutions. Ultimately, for the sake of the common good and common sense, it argues, decisions concerning child custody should not be made by a judge. Most cases could be resolved by an agreement between the spouses, without the intervention of family courts. To this end, the documentary asks for the start of a collaborative justice system, based on mediation and mutual agreement.
Divorce Corp is more than a simple documentary. Its director, Stephen Sorge, a biotech entrepreneur who is a victim of the divorce system himself, promotes a movement for reform of inefficient and unjust institutions that deliver society a remedy that is often worse than the disease.
In essence, Divorce Corp is a elegy for marriage. As often happens in American TV series, it advocates a return to the lost ideal of the family. It is a wake-up call for anyone contemplating a divorce, and a warning to countries which follow the American model. It describes the perversion of a system built with good intentions that has become inhuman because of ignorance of what the family is. It is a vision of how personal interests, money and greed work together to destroy the last refuge of peace and goodness.
Divorce Corp echoes the sombre words of G.K. Chesterton in 1920 when divorce was hotly debated in England: “The newspapers are full of an astonishing hilarity about the rapidity with which hundreds or thousands of human families are being broken up by the lawyers; and about the undisguised haste of the ‘hustling judges’ who carry on the work. It is a form of hilarity which would seem to recall the gaiety of a grave-digger in a city swept by a pestilence.”
Francisco José Pérez Valero is a Spanish journalist working in public administration. This article is a slightly edited version of the original published by Family and Media, a European centre for studying the relationship between the family and mass media.