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BP_Plakat_neuAs a long time restorative justice advocate, I was moved by the documentary, Beyond Punishment by German director, Hubertus Siegert of Berlin.

This is how the documentary is described:

“Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you.

Three different countries and one case of deadly violent each. Three men who have killed and three families who have lost a beloved one. In our standard idea of guilt and punishment this means three who get punished and three who are meant to forget. No way to imagine the two sides will ever get closer. The film tells three times the impossible story: To meet your enemy, in thoughts, in messages, in real life. In Germany, in Norway, in the US.

BEYOND PUNISHMENT tells the stories of Leola, Lisa and Sean, of Erik and Stiva, and of Patrick and Manfred. The people involved in these three life-changing acts of violence have still not found peace – neither the victims nor the offenders. Years after judgements are made and sentences served, both sides are still searching…

This journey into the inner world of violence and punishment begins in a Wisconsin prison. It is in this maximum-security facility, where those responsible for violent acts are usually shut away from society for decades, that something unique is taking place. Every six months, 30 detainees meet the victims of crime, and they do something that would not otherwise happen: they talk to each other. Director Hubertus Siegert gets to know Lisa and Leola, whose brother and son was killed years ago. Starting with their story, the film draws a bow from the US to Norway and Germany. Three crimes in three different cultures, three legal systems, and different ways to come to terms with trauma. The film enters new territory by positing that the pain of loss can be overcome by something other than retaliation and punishment.

The concept of Restorative Justice is led by the idea of understanding the other, to know what led them to commit the crime, and that such an encounter is possible and helpful. The film examines this notion sincerely via these three cases. All the film’s subjects have a helplessness in common when dealing with their experiences of crime and loss. The film examines the need for forgiveness and the inner conflict this wish brings about. What does it mean to forgive? Does it mean forgetting and finally accepting a crime? Would that be a betrayal of the beloved, the victim of the crime? Is there an alternate concept of forgiveness? BEYOND PUNISHMENT is a film that fundamentally challenges our ideas of guilt and punishment.”

For those caught in the trap of their own legitimate wound, it is hard to conceive that the way out – is the way in. It is fearful to go deeper into the wound by hearing the story of the person who caused you harm, and to hear yourself replay the unending loop of how that harm has diminished you. One of those harmed says this in the documentary:

I don’t believe it’s a good idea to meet with the deceased’s family because I said the closure they’re trying to find is not what they could get from me. I can’t give them what they want. (Sean)

In Hubertus Siegert’s own words:

“In BEYOND PUNISHMENT, I am interested in all these feelings and needs that modern judicial machinery and imprisonment do not have sufficient space for. Without a doubt, the penal system has to end the conflict to protect the general public and also to prevent vigilantism. The court, however, is unfortunately restricted from fully dealing with the conflict. By 1977, the renowned Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie had already coined the term “Conflict As Property“, i.e., the conflict is shifted away from the parties directly involved and into the justice system.

In the long run, this ‘disownership’ creates challenging preconditions for survivors of violent crime to rebuild their equanimity. I sensed during my research that both sides, victims and offenders, are extremely armored and that there exists very little belief that destructive fantasies and negative feelings could be replaced by some form of accurate perception of those on the other side.

Those suffering on the victim side remain emotionally tied to the past, still considering themselves powerless victims of tragic events and feeling that the state and courts have at times left them terribly alone. The other side stagnates as well. In the hermetic system of defense attorney, judge, public prosecutor, prison employees and forensic experts – in order to try to keep sentences as low as possible – offenders are frequently taught to simultaneously downplay their offense and yet to also appear remorseful.

In my opinion, in the majority of violent crimes, there is the possibility of having a helpful mutual victim/offender reconsideration of the fantasies, the emotions and the facts. I sought out such cases to be in BEYOND PUNISHMENT. In each of the three cases in the film, the people on both sides face a choice. Do they want to learn specifics about each other, possibly even personally meeting, in order to extricate themselves from the spiral of projections and assumptions toward the other side?

Or do they prefer to stay as they are, suffering in their roles as ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ but also enthralled by notions of revenge, punishment and forgetting? Is knowledge and experience of the other side’s emotions actually a helpful tool? The subject of criminality ranks high in the public’s attention. It is regularly featured in news stories, influences political events and plays a fundamental role in entertainment media. We are, nonetheless, abstractly discussing how to react to crime. We rarely see crime as it is experienced: As a deep injury of real people caused by real people.”

Let me nudge you to go “Beyond Punishment” and to reflect on the mystery of how any of us are released from the bondages of being unforgiven and unforgiving. As we enter into this “remembrance” month, I will be posting articles that speak to the place violence still plays in our lives, and, as usual, pointing you to more enigma than dogma.

For more, see “Truth and Reconciliation: The Long Walk of Doing and Undoing,”  or go to “Restorative Justice International.”