Populist politicians the world over love to fire up voters with phrases such as «tough on law and order», «lock ’em up!», and «we’ll put them behind bars and throw away the key».
It’s good for business if you are a right-wing rabble-rouser. It fires up the emotions of the majority who prefer to not think, to not question.
Far from easy
John Webster’s unsettling film Eye to Eye takes a stonier path. The award-winning Finnish documentary director – who produces through his own company – follows the story of three people who have lost children or siblings to murder.
Born in Finland in 1968 to parents who had moved to the country to teach English, Webster brings an almost anthropological distance to his story and its subjects.
In a Finnish prison, where lifers are nearing the end of their sentences for violent crimes (a relative rarity in Finland, but still the Nordic country of 5.5million people records 100 homicides a year), a special restitution programme brings inmates together with their victims relatives in an attempt to bring healing to both sides.
It has «bleeding heart liberal» scrawled all over it, but as Webster’s film shows, approaching the consequences of violent crime in this way is far from easy.
First, we meet a mother whose teenage daughter Pia died a horrific death weeks after being doused in petrol and set on fire by her boyfriend in a silly dispute over a stolen bottle of vodka. Webster reveals the agonising details slowly – starting with the incompetent local police who fail to inform the victim’s parents before a nurse from the intensive care unit calls to enquire why they are not at their daughter’s bedside.
It’s good for business if you are a right-wing rabble-rouser.
The sheer horror of losing a loved one to murder; the hatred that grows in a parent’s heart for the killer; the aching incomprehension of all the unanswered questions creates a wave of secondary victims from one, brief, violent act.
Then there is Ville, who was bludgeoned to death by a friend acting in cahoots with the 17-year-old’s stepfather. Ville’s biological father is more bewildered and guilt-ridden than hell-bent on revenge: by the time he has the chance to meet the murderer some years have passed and his own murderous impulses have faded.
And we also meet the woman who’s older brother, Janne, was killed around the time of her 18th birthday. A decade later, displaying tattoos of her lost sibling, she admits that meeting his killer – and hearing an apology and pledge to lead a good life – had helped her, even if she can never truly know if one reformed murderer can ever make up for the lost life of her brother.
The heart of the matter
Having set out his agenda, gently without any scene-of-crime photos, contemporary newspaper reports, or police/hospital/official talking heads, Webster draws viewers to the heart of the matter: the face to face meetings between the family of victims and the men (and yes, they are all men) who did the deed.
It is notable that Webster does not avoid probing the motives and emotions of those locked up from the crimes. What do they seek from meeting mothers and fathers they have robbed of their children? Do they hope for forgiveness? Can they ever forgive themselves?
Although it is difficult to show the inner struggle the relatives go through as they approach that first meeting, the scenes when, Pia’s mother, and then Ville’s father, meet their children’s murderers are both shocking and surprising.
Pia’s mother asks for a short delay to finish her coffee before meeting the man who killed her daughter. It is 11 years after the murder and she has only glimpsed him once before – an accidental sighting during his trial. Now she is confronted with a man of 28 who looks like a naïve, overgrown child, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming faith in Jesus. He looks both blank and terrified at the same time. She maintains a mask of composure that gradually softens to something approaching compassion as they talk. Is his faith genuine? Does he truly repent of his sins? Can she truly forgive him?
Lifting the heavy hand
Later, she confesses that that meeting had helped her. There will never be closure, but the heavy hand of hatred on her heart has lifted, she says.
Ville’s father also seems to find relief in simply talking with the young man who had been his son’s chum since junior school. Just being able to express his feelings and hear the torn, tortured answers to questions he had sent in advance, seems to bring healing and succour.
the heavy hand of hatred on her heart has lifted
There are no palatable reasons for murder. Whatever its perpetrators believe it will achieve, in the end, it only brings pain and destruction.
Murderers should face the consequences of their actions and be locked up for a long time. But unless more intelligence is brought to addressing this most shocking of crimes – and forging new ways to approach reducing it – there is little hope for change.
Eye to Eye screened at Finland’s DocPoint 2020 festival in Helsinki, late January.