Beyond Right and Wrong. Film Review

On Friday 13th March, The Centre for Democracy and Peace Building and Queens Film Theatre presented a showing of the must see documentary Beyond Right and Wrong: Stories of Justice and Forgiveness.  The documentary, which has been hailed a “peaceful revolution,” looks at how whole societies recover from devastating conflict and questions if victims and perpetrators work together to rebuild their lives?  If you didn’t make the screening, thanks to an inventive distribution method, you can watch it online for free, or by donating a small fee.

REVIEW BY JOHN MCPARLAND

Forgiveness seems to be a vanishing art these days.  Sure, people apologise all the time to those they have wronged, and in turn, their apology is accepted by the victim.  However, an apology is merely an admission of guilt, the acceptance of which simply implies that the wronged party grants that the accused is at fault.  That is not forgiveness, that is an agreement on the assignment of blame.  Similarly, it is not forgiveness if it is pursued in the hope of some gain, such as in the case of rebuilding a relationship after an affair, where the expectation is of resetting the situation to a time before the offense; that is simply tolerance of a deed.  Forgiveness is something else entirely.

As a perpetrator, seeking forgiveness is about showing genuine remorse for your actions, acknowledging your crime without excuse or justification, and opening up yourself to the possible hostility of those you have wronged, without expecting any form of compensation whatsoever.  It involves a level of fortitude seldom seen in society.  To show true contrition, vulnerability, and penitence is far harder than many of us would believe.  Saying sorry is easy, many know and freely admit when they are wrong; but seeking the forgiveness of those transgressed, with remorseful conscious, open-heart and bared soul, for no other reason or gains than the desire to be forgiven, is more than most of us could stand.

As a victim, forgiveness is about offering respect to those responsible for a transgression, seeing them as fallible, and granting them a level of human decency sometimes vastly disproportionately higher than the level they showed you during their offence.  A victim is often filled with rage, blame and pain.  They are angry at their treatment and are quick to demonise the guilty party.  To put such a heavy burden aside and sit across the table from the perpetrator of their anguish requires an amount of love and decency that is easily one of the greatest challenges to the human condition.

Image: © Beyond Right and Wrong
Image: © Beyond Right and Wrong

In both cases, the magnitude of the crime exponentially compounds the strength required by either party to further the goal of forgiveness.  And make no mistake, BEYOND RIGHT & WRONG: STORIES OF JUSTICE AND FORGIVENESS displays some of the most heinous of humanity’s crimes, where the pursuit of forgiveness seems beyond impossible from the very moment the film starts playing.

This powerfully moving documentary by directors Lekha Singh and Roger Spottiswoode follows several victims and perpetrators as they come to terms with the horrendous acts that they have been a part of.  The encounters covered are some of the most influential and devastating of the modern age.  From the ongoing Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, to the decades long “troubles” between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland of last century, to the unimaginably devastating Rwandan Genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus in 1994.

The film opens with the tale of Jo Berry and Patrick Magee, a fatherless daughter and the Irish bomber who made it so.  Caught for his crime of bombing the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, Magee was sentenced to 8 consecutive life sentences for the lives he took.  Released as part of the peace process after only 14 years served, Magee was later contacted by Berry to discuss Magee’s murder of her father.  Determined not to lead a life of blame, Berry realised that to hold onto her anger of Magee would crystallise the impact he had on her life, and forever keep her a victim.  Thus, she sought out a new path instead, one of understanding and reconciliation, so that she could release her burden and gain some measure of peace.  To this end, she chose to break bread with the man who shattered her life, so as to understand the why of the reason her father had to die, and to impart on Magee the beauty of who his victim was.  This has a profound impact on Magee, as humanising the dead fills him with remorse.  The murders now weigh heavily on Magee’s soul; it was easier when he could just demonise his enemy, but having met Berry and learning of the man her father once was, remorse and regret are now Magee’s constant companions.  When an angry journalist flings the term “murderer” at Magee in a clear attempt to use it as an insult and not a descriptor, Berry comes to his defence explaining that to sympathise with your enemy, to mirror yourself into their lives, removes the notion of divisive labels, and makes you realise that in the end, we are all just human beings.

Image: © Beyond Right and Wrong
Image: © Beyond Right and Wrong

Next, we meet Palestinian Bassam Aramin and Israeli Rami Elhanan, two fathers who in separate incidents lost their daughters to the conflict plaguing their lands.  Aramin and Elhanan met each other at a support group for attack victims and realised that here was another human being that understood the devastation that had befallen them both.  Not a Palestinian and an Israeli, not a decades-long enemy, merely another like father filled with an identical anguish.  As Elhanan states, “our blood is the same colour, our pain is exactly the same pain, our tears are just as bitter.”  They realise that the culturally enforced notions that they have some sort of right to fight each is the most futile of sentiments, as all this does is create more victims for themselves and others, in an endless cycle that has been going on for far too long.  These two fathers are now united in a joint search for peace between their two cultures.  These survivors of life altering devastation are paying the greatest price anyone in their situation could ever pay: they are choosing to take the path of dialogue, instead of the path of hatred.

We then move to the intensely powerful stories of Beata Mukangarambe and Emmanuel Bamporiki, a devastated survivor of the Rwandan Genocide and the man who butchered her five children with a machete; and that of Jean-Baptiste Ntakirutimana, another Genocide survivor and his search for answers from the man who annihilated his entire family, including his 11 siblings.  Bamporiki is desperate for forgiveness for the heinous crime he committed against Mukangarambe and her family.  Mukangarambe cannot stand the sight of this man, and refuses for the longest time to acknowledge any other emotions but hatred and rage towards him.  Bamporiki does not think he can live with what he has done, feeling he would rather accept death, than the oppressive darkness weighing on his soul.  Mukangarambe comes to realise that without forgiveness, the world will once again face a similar atrocity as her people did, at some point in the future.  She accepts this truth, and despite her hardship, comes to forgive the truly remorseful man who took everything from her.

Ntakirutimana heads off to a Rwandan prison to get answers and some form of closure on the deaths of his family.  Ntakirutimana states, “he was in prison, but I was his prisoner,” realising that Ntakirutimana’s lack of knowledge surrounding the fate of his family is in and of itself a prison sentence, though one of the mind and heart, than of the body.  Meeting the man responsible, Ntakirutimana recognises that here is a fearful soul full of regret and pain, not unlike the emotions running through Ntakirutimana himself.  They talk, and Ntakirutimana finds the information he desires, accepting that however hard hearing the details of his family’s death is, the truth is liberating.  In a final act of release and reconciliation, Ntakirutimana grants forgiveness on behalf of himself and his dead family, when the perpetrator asks for it nervously, fearfully, and full of contrition.

Image: © Beyond Right and Wrong
Image: © Beyond Right and Wrong

In stunning praise of Singh’s skills, the documentary is magnificently put together, displaying beautiful scenic shots of Ireland, Israel and Rwanda, and their people.  These moments are interlaced with scenes of victims and perpetrators telling their story, in impassioned detail.  Archival footage of the atrocities, as well as photographs and home movies of the victims add yet another layer of emotional intensity to this achingly touching film.  There is also intermittent commentary by charity founders, psychiatrists, councillors, activists, and authors.  The score also bears special mention.  Hauntingly emotive music swells and fills the cinema during the most powerful of scenes, driving home the impact of what you are viewing.  I wept like a child throughout most of the film, so moved was I by the devastating stories and indescribable acts of love and forgiveness.

Anger is such a pervasive emotion, able to cloud judgements and blacken souls.  The courage of these victims to put aside such feelings, and open their hearts to forgiveness is staggering.  Further, the intensity of the regretful perpetrators in asking for and receiving forgiveness is equally as astounding.  It would be easier on the perpetrator if the victim forever met them with anger and accusation, as opposed to respect and a desire for understanding.  Both parties showed a truly superhuman level of compassion, laying down their justifications and desires for revenge, in the hope of sharing experiences and joining hands in the search for peace.

Completed in 2012, BEYOND RIGHT & WRONG: STORIES OF JUSTICE AND FORGIVENESS was 7 years in the making.  Once finished, it received acclaim from audience members and critics alike, including Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Kweku Mandela Amuah, who now actively promotes the film to audiences around the world.  You can see the film yourself online for free HERE, where each viewership donates 50 cents to the charity of your choice.  I strongly encourage you to do so.

This film does not advertise a particular opinion or point of view.  It is not a commentary on war, or terrorism, or revenge, or hatred.  It is not a critique on the judicial system, or politics, or crime, or punishment.  As the title suggests, it is beyond right and wrong.  This is not some Michael Moore or Louis Theroux trashy documentary where, though an opinion may not always be explicitly stated, the incredibly bias lean in a certain direction of the subject material makes it blatantly obvious which view is being supported.  Instead, Singh simply presents a beautifully compiled and intensely moving documentary about the power of the human spirit, resilience, compassion, and humanity’s infinite capacity for forgiveness.  Take from this film what you will; it does not force your hand in any direction.

Regardless of race or colour, creed or ethnicity, religion or political stance.  Regardless of age, sex, status, wealth, orientation, or intelligence.  Regardless of the crime.  Regardless of the desire for vengeance.  In the end, we are all human beings, born free of hatred, with an endless capacity to love.  What we “learn” throughout our lives and how it shapes our emotions does not change the fact that we are all each other’s brothers and sisters; our differences are inconsequential, we are all human.  This film stands as proud testament to the ability within us all to see each other as neighbours and to forgive any transgression, regardless of the severity.  As a member of humanity, you each owe it to yourselves to see this film, to be touched by it, moved by it, empowered by it.

Go forth and shape a better world for us all.

John McParland is a film critic for  Saltypopcorn.com.au, where this review was first published. Follow @saltypopcornau on Twitter.

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