When seven prisoners, all guilty of murder, talk to director Sarah Vanhee about the plot for a crime film, one would expect their own experiences to fuel the discussions. Like many documentarists exposing the fates of people in various unfortunate positions (like homeless people, junkies, religious minorities), Vanhee also has the more or less therapeutic function of the social worker – if nothing else by being somebody the portrayed can talk to. A frequently debated dilemma is the extent to which the interviewee is exploited by his confiding in the one person who – at last – “sees him for who he is”. The price to pay for the immediate therapeutic value of this confidence may extend his expectations: being eternally exposed in a vulnerable situation, not necessarily adhering to future preferences regarding private life made public.
No fear in this case. Vanhee avoids this problem completely by blurring out all participants, including herself. We get a fair share of jeans, naturally, we see the occasional backside of an ear, a tattooed arm here, a wristwatch there, but no blatant giveaway as to the owner’s identity. For certain readers this might sound like a dry and monotonous experience, but it works just fine, and Vanhee shows us the power of engaging conversation, charged, of course, by an equally engaging topic: a crime career – including imprisonment and the challenge of rehabilitation thereafter – as imagined by people with first hand experience.
Family, society, abuse, trauma. The Making of Justice sets out trying to establish the protagonist’s childhood, and quickly turn into an exchange of ideas about family, society, abuse, trauma, not to mention the general life quality of being a professional criminal. A passing anecdote informs us that mafiosi in their thirties tend to have the heart conditions of 50-, 60-year olds, due to stress. The discussions run smoothly, surprisingly neat, even, the ignitable themes considered, and without as much as the bud of a quarrel. What’s been left out in the editing is anyone’s guess, of plays out seem like an honest debate, and to the point. One of the major points are the plausibility of the story, the protagonist’s development, like when one of them questions the likelihood of a juvenile delinquent committing petty crimes all of a sudden is trusted with money laundering for a crooked bank.
Prison. It goes without saying that any portrayal of inmates will inevitably host a critique of the prison system, and we’ve all read or heard some version of the prison as an institution of “criminal higher education”. Well, sure enough, we get it here as well, but merely en passant, and as an answer to a question. In jail you make new connections, not necessarily good ones, as is stated here as a dry fact, and without making a meal out of it. This seems to be the film’s forte, along with its participants, how it simply states the facts and probabilities of this or that happening, during a robbery, or the panicked getaway.
Different scenarios of the story are tentatively imagined, also the return to society. All obstacles are taken into account: sceptical communities, reluctant employers, reactions of families, and so on. Challenges abound, but hope is to be found with the usual benefactors: love, family life, children – anything but, apparently, prisons’ concentration of people with more or less antisocial actions and/or attitudes as their common ground.
The most interesting part of the discussion evolve around the confrontation with the so-called “traitor”, the “snitch”, the one who told on the protagonist and had him imprisoned. How would he, supposedly rehabilitated, act upon meeting this person again?
A few of the statements here leaves the question of whether it’s the speaker’s purely narrative contribution or if he’s actually exposing his own personal attitudes. It would be reassuring to know it’s purely make-believe, but it’s really hard to tell.
Speaking of meta-speak, the film wouldn’t have been worse off by letting the inmates talk about the very experience we’ve just seen, or maybe comment on the result so far. But this is a minor objection, easily offset by the sympathetic length of the film. It clocks in at roughly 60 well spent minutes.
More enlightened. 99 percent of the statements forwarded here stands to reason, a reminder that, as is mentioned early in the film, most prison inmates are not professional criminals, but perpetrators of crimes of passion, of circumstances gone terribly wrong. The Making of Justice leaves us a little more enlightened, in line with how a crime novelist once described his motivation to write: an urge to comprehend what it is that makes somebody become a criminal. That is quite an ambition, but any contribution, like Vanhee’s film, adds to our understanding. We’ll never have enough of that.