Unlikely Friends - The Story Behind the Film

By Leslie Neale
Leslie Neale was recently featured in the Summer of Peace for her film Unlikely Friends.  
I think it was selfishness that brought me to make films about criminal justice reform.  I was eight months pregnant when I witnessed a program of transformational healing for inmates at a Louisiana State Penitentiary.
While sitting in a circle with hardened criminals, I immediately realized that the “monsters” I sat with could have been me but for the right circumstance, the wrong choice, the grace of God.  Listening to their stories, I was struck by the capacity we humans have for change as well as the devastating consequences for us all if we don’t.  I realized that the son in my belly could conceivably be at either end of a gun someday.  I realized we are all connected and that we are all invited to help figure our way out of the spiraling cycle of violence in our culture.
And so, I began.  But years later and several films down the road my greatest takeaway has been how apparent the lack of any true healing occurs, whether for the victim or the perpetrator. The adversarial nature of our criminal justice system, based on punishment and exclusion, keeps us stuck in an “us” against “them” mentality.  Victims become witnesses for the state solely for the sake of prosecution and under the guise of protection, they are to be kept long and far apart from their perpetrators.  
I saw perpetrators angry and blaming, remain violent  – years into their incarceration, far from taking any true responsibility for what they’d done.  I saw victims still languishing in pain and bitterness, unable to take control of their lives.  I saw how punishment alone does not heal anyone let alone prevent more crime from happening.
Then I began to hear stories of victims of brutal crimes healing themselves with the power of forgiveness.  All on their own, without help from the criminal justice system, they sought out and connected with their perpetrators.  They found the courage to forgive, even facing judgment and ridicule from others to free themselves from their pain.  In turn, they had an amazing affect on those who hurt them the most.  It enabled their offenders to take accountability and make amends for their crime, the first step toward any meaningful rehabilitation of oneself.
Instinctively they were following restorative justice principles that find resolution by having burning questions answered:  Why me?  Who are you?  Why did you do what you did?   Most didn’t instantly arrive at forgiveness. In fact some at first wanted the death penalty for their perpetrators.  But eventually realizing their interconnectedness, they progressed toward forgiveness, even finding profound friendship.
Forgiveness is in no way necessary for restorative justice to work.  But as Azim Khamisa, who is featured in my new documentary Unlikely Friends says,  “Forgiveness is restorative justice on steroids”!  I wonder how much more healing would occur if the system started truly supporting those victims and perpetrators who want to come together within restorative justice frameworks?
The documentary, Unlikely Friends explores how the power of forgiveness between victim and perpetrator can affect change within the criminal justice system by paving roads to reconciliation and rehabilitation. It will air on Investigation Discovery October 21s, 2013.  To arrange Community Screenings, please visit www.unlikelyfriendsforgive.com or contact Leslie Neale at chancefilms@mac.com

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This article appears in: 2013 Catalyst - Issue 14