Interview with Hubertus Siegert

How did you go about finding the protagonists for the film?

Hubertus Siegert: The search for the protagonists took a lot of time. The final lineups consisted of those who were willing to be filmed and to enter into a two-way exchange. As a filmmaker, of course, you intervene in the process but without outside support it’s almost impossible to manage such conflicts. Also, on the whole, the possibility of interchanges for the protagonists became clearer as the film progressed; I didn’t start with that. The path of seeking protagonists actually always went via the victim side. If you try to approach the victim side from the perpetrator side, it’s usually too threatening for them. I’ve experienced that a few times and it quickly proved to be a mistake. In the film, none of the perpetrator families wanted to join in but that’s a coincidence; Otherwise, I probably would have also included them. It was already a big challenge to find people who were at all willing to get involved in such an encounter with ‘their’ other side – and a still greater challenge to convince them to be filmed. With that, the film really is entering unknown territory and the protagonists were very brave.

In each of the three cases, the actual victims of the violent crimes – the original victims – were dead. Is it so much harder to find cases where directly affected victims of violence – for example, rape victims and rapists – get involved in such a process?

Hubertus Siegert: Rape or interfamilial violence are the most difficult areas, particularly regarding mediation, because it’s very difficult to produce an exchange on an equal footing without leading to flashbacks of the actual encounter, i.e., to what is known as ‘re-traumatization’ and this rightly causes concern to those involved in mediating violent cases. My decision to focus on murder cases was based on the idea that it shouldn’t be more complicated than it already is. In a murder, there is only one kind of ‘affected people’ on the victim side – namely, witnesses in the broadest sense: survivors, friends, the social environment. A third level next to perpetrators and secondary victims would have made the mediation more difficult and led to even more people in the film. It was also important to me to show more than one country and more than one case so that the overriding question becomes clearer. The punishments are also different in the three countries – sometimes seemingly endlessly long and sometimes relatively short. It is interesting that that does not change much of the core problem for either side. For all of these reasons, I decided to focus exclusively on homicide cases.

How have you protected yourself from the strong emotions that invariably accompany such stories?

Hubertus Siegert: The encounters with the protagonists were very intense. So, I had to be careful to remain a documentary filmmaker and find a balance between proximity and the observer position. I had to operate on multiple levels: as a human counterpart and empathetic conflict companion as well as a goal-oriented filmmaker who was proceeding economically. I had already received support and guidance from Nonviolent Communication Experts and professional Restorative Justice Mediators during the search for the protagonists and later in the attempt to invite them to participate. However, before the final configurations had been settled on, it was already difficult because I had to first learn to not allow myself to be discouraged by the search and also to develop ‘persuasiveness through empathy’. Also, during the subsequent shooting, I had experienced support that I could always call on. I also luckily had my small film crew, which established a considerable emotional security for everyone. I was accompanied occasionally in the work by a conflict supervisor. I always had someone I could talk to. Just as the participants couldn’t do it alone, I also needed support. Naturally, it was unclear whether anything would come of the process because everything is voluntary and the result of the process is always unknown. So, there was always the opportunity to drop out, even up until the very end. Furthermore, I had assured all the protagonists that they would get a copy of the film and have the right of veto. I’m in regular contact with all of them to this day, even if the support isn’t as intense as during the shooting.

How did you find the discussion group in the Wisconsin prison? Are there also such mediation approaches between perpetrators and victims outside the USA?

Hubertus Siegert: This type of discussion group is also not very widespread in the United States even though the Americans have a much more sophisticated system to look after the victims of violent crime. Unlike in Germany, where victim support has only arisen in the last few decades, every state in the USA has its own bureau in the department of justice, which deals only with victims of violent crime. This focus, and a stronger tradition of publicly expressing oneself about personal issues in groups, makes the idea and practice of discussion circles more natural. I found the Wisconsin circle through the former judge Janine Geske who is relatively well known for her work in this field. The Green Bay Prison Program has existed since 1997 and is a psychosocial training program with the three-day Restorative Justice discussion group as a highlight. Those affected by crimes and those responsible for crimes speak there in turn in a regulated process. Both sides are able to feel deep emotions and have profound experiences despite there being only representatives from ‘the other side’ there and not their respective actual perpetrators or victims. In fact, I know of only a few such programs, which is a dilemma. If Mrs. Geske and the other elderly ladies who look after such projects – and do not appear in the film – were to stop, it’s not clear whether this type of mediation would continue. In Europe, there are such approaches as well, especially in Belgium. In Germany, however, they are few and far between and not institutionalized.

How are such discussion groups connected to the USA’s otherwise merciless punishment system?

Hubertus Siegert: As a matter of fact, the USA’s inhumane prison system, with sentences of sixty-five or 100 years, is to a large extent the complete opposite of social rehabilitation. But there is also a debate under way that one should be punished in proportion to one’s crime and what that can actually mean. Imposing several life sentences without parole for a murder is being hotly debated. One can also conclude about the USA that an imprisonment rate that is seven or ten times higher than in Germany has brought with it nothing but higher costs. How the money could be better invested is being thought about. The public, however, is still fixated on the hope of security by way of punishment. In the USA, the media constantly reinforces this despite every scientist saying that such ideas are nonsense. Of course, for us in Germany, it’s due to our constitutional starting point that everything should be about social rehabilitation but the majority of our public would probably be against it if they were asked. It is a field in which a lot of education is still needed. Discussion groups like those in the film are beyond the imagination of the general public. That’s why I made the film – to document such ideas that are quasi-explored in the film.

Why doesn’t the film follow the conflicts of the protagonists to their logical conclusion? Why don’t we find out what happens with them?

Hubertus Siegert: Many encounters the film deals with are actually not suitable for the screen. That was my dilemma when trying to find protagonists as well and perhaps also a reason why the big solution is not suddenly everywhere apparent. One would usually expect that such a film shows how the conflicting parties in different countries meet, reconcile and then somehow everything is good once again. But the film shows something else. It shows how difficult the process is and that it does some good nevertheless. A meeting of the families of perpetrators and victims, for example, would also be very desirable but Erik and Leola, on the victim side, were not ready. I myself have taken a long time, not to hope for a solution – as is suggested by the German concept of offender-victim mediation – but to trust the open ending of the restorative justice approach, even in the film’s three very adversarial constellations. In short: Trust the process. There definitely exist ambitions with all of the film’s protagonists to continue their process with the other side but that is no longer part of the film and only hinted at. A film must come to an end; the process for those involved continues – just no longer in the public eye.