An animated / live-action documentary exploring the past, present and future of Peacemaking Circles, and how this ancient restorative justice practice has been reimagined to keep youth out of prison. The film tracks the parallel stories of a troubled teen facing serious jail time, and the former Cambodian gang leader serving as his mentor.
In Seattle, communities are working to break the cycle of incarceration. A promising new restorative justice program based on Indigenous peace-making circles aims to bring healing to families and communities while reforming the justice system. Using beautifully crafted animation, the film follows Andy, a teenager facing felony charges, and his family as they work through the program shepherded by Saroeum, a former gang leader. As they look at the status of the broken justice system – prosecutors, judges, and those running the program ask: how much is our society willing to invest to truly change the trajectory of our communities for the better?
Film Producer, Eric Metzgar
Andy was in trouble. The Seattle teen had found himself on the wrong side of the law more than once. The legal system, juvenile services, and even his family had given up on him. His future didn’t look good, and the criminal justice system was admittedly failing kids like Andy. Once in the system, most teens continue to fail, in a repetitive circle of crime, justice and incarceration. Andy’s struggle and then assistance in a diversion program is chronicled in the new 90-minute documentary film, A Once and Future Peace, by filmmaker, Eric Metzgar.
The movie premiered recently in Seattle to a crowd interested in the innovative program of criminal justice reform, “Restorative Justice for Youth” program. Created and managed by Saroeum Phoung, himself a former Boston gang member, the model of justice is specifically aimed at teens in Andy’s situation, utilizing a communication style known as a Peacemaking Circle. Originally utilized in indigenous cultures, the Circle is nothing new, but engaging it with modern systems, is.
Metzgar had observed the failure of the current justice system while teaching Buddhist meditation at a California prison. He was frustrated that the work they were doing was so downstream from the circumstances that led to the crime. Researching Restorative Justice he found there some impactful crime intervention in Canada, but not in much in the U.S., until he was recommended to Phoung in Seattle.
“Hearing Saroeum’s narrative, his background of surviving the violence of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, where he was lost as a young child for years before reuniting with his family and immigrating to the States, attracted me,” says Metzgar. “He asked me to sit in a Peacemaking Circle for 3 days, where I heard his story and then learned how the process works to share forgotten stories that led to where they were now.”
Andy, for instance, hadn’t recovered from the death of his cousin, an event that affected his entire family and set him on a course of psychological trauma and rage. The teens in the group are generally boys, struggling with emotions they can’t handle. They are sad, confused, and overwhelmed. Often, they are unable to express those emotions, and it takes time to work through them.
The film had challenges in production. Part animated to protect the identities of the teens, the black and white line drawings still reflect realistic emotion, from Andy’s mother’s tears, his father’s disappointment, and the coaching and encouragement by Phoung, all bring the film to life. Filmmaker Metzgar uses original recordings made at each Peace Circle session. Unlike many documentaries, there is no narration, only the storytelling itself by the people involved. An archivist researched newspaper articles and interviews were utilized to give the film further credibility. It is a true and engaging tale.