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Face to Face

An Interview with Michael Rymer


Based on true session notes, this is a dramatic inside look at Australia’s “restorative justice” program, in which victims and perpetrators of even violent crimes come together to work out their problems and focus on a solution that’s better for all while avoiding prison time. It’s a powerful process because, as this film so deftly reveals, there is oftentimes much more to a story that just the violent outburst at the end of a conflict.

Director Michael Rymer recently spent some time answering The Independent‘s questions about Face to Face, which has its world premiere at SBIFF on Thursday, Feburary 3, 8:10 a.m., at the Metro 4.

This seems like a unique mediation process, considering it was a violent crime. Is that a controversial program in Australia?

Restorative justice is not controversial at all. It’s the future. Restorative justice is a more just, empowering solution to many of our current social problems. But this is not suited to all crimes. It’s widely believed this system is particularly effective in cases where young people are involved. It offers a way out of this crazy system we have, particularly in the U.S., where we have vast prison populations where light offenders can be turned, over time, into heavy life criminals.

Programs using the conferencing process are legislated in Australia and New Zealand, practiced widely in the U.K. and other parts of Europe, and used in various programs in Canada and the U.S.[The most substantial independent conferencing program in the U.S. would be the Baltimore Community Conferencing Center. See communityconferencing.org).] The conferencing process is used not only in criminal justice systems, but also in schools and workplaces. It gets different outcomes because it asks a different question to “retributive justice.” Instead of “who did the wrong thing and what should the authorities do to them?” it asks: “What happened? How were people affected? How can we set things right?”

Restorative Justice programs have been widely evaluated. In essence, they deliver some very desirable results, such as lowered rates of re-offending (for comparable offenders and comparable crimes) and higher rates of satisfaction, from participants, that justice was done. These are now simple empirical facts. The process gives power to people, rather than taking it away from them.

What ought to be controversial is that the process is not being more widely or rapidly adopted. Indeed, in the Australian state of New South Wales, the relevant minister resigned last year when his own government declined to follow the recommendations of an independent report to expand their restorative justice programs.

What inspired you to make a film about it?

My old school mate David Moore is the real life Jack, the facilitator. We would catch up once a year for a lunch in Bronte, Sydney, or wherever we would cross paths. I said, “What are you up to now?” He said, “I can’t explain it succinctly but David Williamson has written a play about it. I’ll email it to you.”

David Williamson is our most distinguished Australian playwright. His work is contemporary and lively and I’ve basically grown up on his plays since the ‘70s. I read the play. And I thought it was a well-told yarn with lots of twists and surprises. In the tradition of 12 Angry Men, which I’ve always loved.

But I asked David “I love this but surely it’s a fantasy. Things don’t work out so well do they?” And he replied, “Yes they do. You’d be surprised.” And I thought, “This is a very powerful message. It could be a tool for resolving conflicts on so many levels. “ I’ve always ended up directing quite dark, sad stories. So it was nice to work on something with a positive and constructive ending.

Does it seem to be working better than typical prison sentences?

I don’t know the statistics, but I love this notion, familiar in many indigenous practices, that we all have a deep need to be connected to one another. Whether we can see it or not. Shaming and Pride. In New Zealand, the national restorative justice legislation was actually inspired by traditional Maori practice. I wanted to call the movie “Shaming and Pride” at one point.

It’s fascinating to watch as the perceived good guy’s life crumbles in the short session. Was it your intent to show how outbursts of violence might be rooted in something more complicated than just someone’s temper? Why is that important to understand?

It’s all about the connections that bind us together. That we all react to our circumstances and makes dozens of unconscious decisions a day that we might not be so proud. But we are all able to be selective in the stories we tell about ourselves so that we’re the hero. Until he’s confronted by the other stories in the circle, Greg perceives himself to be the hero. Sharing stories involves renegotiating who we are, what groups we belong to, and where we stand in the group.

The acting is especially strong. How did you find the actors for these roles?

That’s a long complex story that you don’t have space for. Let’s just say that I was extremely lucky. Lucky that there were so many distinguished Australian actors willing to jump in and work for nothing, and change behind a curtain. And we were lucky to discover so many amazing new talents. I can’t single out anyone in this context: these 10 actors are just excellent across the board. And bring very different energies and textures to the story.

the film begins by explaining that it is based on actual case notes. How closely did you follow them? Did this unraveling really happen in one session?

The film was based on the play by David Williamson. And I believe most of the events really happened. But not all from just one session. It’s an amalgam of several different sessions where the characters have been intentionally combined so that it protects the real people’s privacy. David Moore studied Community Conferencing theory, practice, and multiple case studies. (There’s a long and interesting back-story about playwright and practitioners being guided by the same body of theory, in particular the legendary U.S. psychologist Silvan Tomkins, whose contributions to our understanding of human motivation are described in a fascinating chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.)

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The world premiere of Michael Rymer’s Face to Face is Thursday, February 3, 8:10 a.m. at the Metro 4. It also screens on Friday, February 4, 7:40 p.m. and Sunday, February 6, 10:20 a.m. at the Metro 4. The schedule is subject to change, so see independent.com/sbiff for updates.

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