In one of the best “aha” moments of the documentary A Once and Future Peace, a former chief judge of the Yukon Territory and honorary member of Carcross/Tagish First Nation discusses the values most esteemed by cultures worldwide. Independent of geography and religion, those traits include honesty, trust, respect, and love. Left hanging in the air is the fact that none of these are embodied in North American criminal justice systems. Is it any wonder, then, that “rehabilitation” doesn’t happen in our courts and jails?
As directed by Eric Daniel Metzgar, A Once and Future Peace argues for a better way, restorative justice through peacemaking circles. Metzgar does this effectively by opening a window into the lives of a handful of participants.
Andy is a 17 year old Seattle kid, facing four felony charges related to his gang involvement. Offered participation in a pilot program, which if completed will lead to a dropping of all charges, he leaps at the chance. With close supervision and intensive participation in talking circles, he’s released from juvenile detention and returns home to his parents and sister.
Metzgar then pulls back and delivers a biography of the circle’s facilitator. Saroeum Phuong was forced into child soldiering for the Khmer Rouge before fleeing Cambodia with his family. Resettled on Boston’s outskirts, he and other refugees suffered hostility and outright violence from their white neighbors, prompting him to join a gang for its safety and solidarity. Pointed yet compassionate questions from a youth worker prompted a 180, and he lent his wits and passion to rescuing other youngsters.
Enter restorative justice. Barry Stuart (the aforementioned judge) and Tlingit tribe member Black Raven were dismayed by the ineffectiveness of the justice system in their community. (Black Raven’s story itself could fill a documentary, as a survivor of Indian residential schools, the abusive Canadian mix of church and state that aimed to “kill the Indian in the child.”) Together, Black Raven and Stuart implemented the worldwide tradition of peacemaking circles, where the perpetrators, their family members, and the victims gather and converse for hours. With goals of love and healing, the damage is frankly discussed, the roots of the harmful behavior explored, and ruptured connections are reestablished.
Through an engaging mélange of biographical interview, video news footage, and headlines, Metzgar depicts how Phuong, Stuart, and Black Raven joined forces. As evangelists for restorative justice, the latter two were on a speaking circuit to plead their case. Phuong and his organization felt they were hitting a wall in trying to engage their community and local law enforcement; hearing Stuart and Black Raven led to a sea change in their attitude and approach. Later offered a job by King County (Seattle), Phuong leapt at the chance to take this philosophy westward.
If this sounds like a lot of narrative plates to keep spinning, Metzgar manages it impressively. Even when he introduces King County judges and prosecutors, he integrates them in comprehensible fashion. Their addition is also a savvy way to answer predictable yet understandable objections to peacemaking circles: are they a scam to avoid consequences? is this a bunch of touchy-feely woo?
Andy’s story remains the focal point of A Once and Future Peace, inventively told through simple animation to preserve his anonymity, with voiceover by him and his family. Perhaps it was luck of the draw for Metzgar, but I appreciated that Andy’s saga isn’t one of linear triumph, but realistically has its share of setbacks (though I hate it for Andy and his longsuffering family).
Metzgar’s film loses a bit of narrative steam when the pandemic arrives in King County. Regrettably, he leans overmuch on lengthy drone shots – the new enemy of creative documentary storytelling – towards the end. Instead, I wish he would’ve shown us more of the actual talking circles, to help us better understand what distinguishes them from group therapy, and to discover for ourselves what “pure listening” looks like.
Nonetheless, A Once and Future Peace is a worthwhile introduction to the concept of restorative justice. Both in their humane philosophy and their outcomes, peacemaking circles strike me as a vast improvement over our current revolving door prison system. (And for the bean counters among us, their cost is 90% less than business as usual.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )