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John Webster • Director of Eye to Eye

“The impossible can happen”


- We talked to John Webster, the director of Eye to Eye, which has world-premiered at this year’s edition of the Finnish DocPoint festival

John Webster  • Director of Eye to Eye

In Eye to Eye [+see also:
interview: John Webster
film profile
, John Webster shows the alternative to the Bible-recommended “eye for an eye” approach, as bereaved family members meet with the killers of their loved ones in accordance with the rules of the restorative justice programme, which brings together the victim and the offender. We spoke to Webster about the movie, which has world-premiered at DocPoint.

Cineuropa: There is still this idea of Nordic countries being some kind of a peaceful paradise. Why did you decide to show the darker side?
John Webster:
I was involved in a documentary theatre production once, and through that, I discovered the restorative justice programme. The problems it’s dealing with are crucial, especially in places like Finland, where people have trouble talking about their feelings. The primary function of the programme is to help people grieve after a traumatic loss, which I have also experienced myself. It’s not suitable for everybody, but it can be very effective. Family members of the victims of a violent crime go into a state where they are unable to mourn. In our experience, when a loved one dies, we are able to start the process after the funeral. But in their case, there is a police investigation and sessions in court. It can take years before the sentence is passed, and there is no peace, just a constant reminder of what happened. Many people either postpone their grieving or learn to live without going through it at all. But that’s where the problem starts, leading to depression, the inability to work, and suicidal thoughts. Grieving is not the problem – the problem is when one is not able to grieve.

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The idea of facing the person who killed someone you love is rather terrifying – not to mention discussing the act in great detail.
Every time I tell people about this premise, they react this way. It is terrifying! But if there are some unanswered questions, it’s good to meet the perpetrator. In one case, it had been 13 years since the person I show had lost her daughter. She had been carrying around this hatred for years, unable to move forward. The facilitators of the restorative dialogue always start with the family member – it’s for their benefit. They look at what it is they need to find out, and then interview the perpetrator. The first criterion is remorse. Then they try to find out if he or she can answer these questions, very often starting with “why?” There is this saying in Finland that “knowledge is pain”. But in this case, knowing the truth actually helps.

Does it ever happen the other way around, with the killer reaching out first? And with the actual confrontation being so intimate, did you have trouble convincing people to participate in the film?
In recent years, it has happened, and we see more and more families deciding to do it as well. It certainly was a concern for me, as I didn’t want the filming of the meeting to influence the actual meeting. They had waited years, so I wanted them to immerse themselves in it without any distractions. We put the cameras behind this camouflage wall and hid them, even though of course they knew they were there. It was a bit like wildlife cinematography in nature. We undertook this process in stages – we agreed with both parties that we were allowed to film them, but there was no guarantee we could use it. Then they would approve the film at the final-cut stage. I never wanted to show crime-scene photos or have any third parties involved. I wanted them to have this feeling of control.

There are quite a few interviews in the film, even though so-called “talking heads” seem to meet with mixed reactions these days.
My visual approach came out of these meetings and the desire to look the perpetrator in the eye, to see if he or she was telling the truth. That “looking in the eye” was an important idea in terms of how we would film it. I used a version of a teleprompter, in which the interviewee could see me, but the effect is as if they were looking straight into the camera instead. I wanted the audience to have the same point of view as the one the family members had. I didn’t look into any background information before, because I wanted to be able to meet the perpetrators as people and have them explain what they did.

In the end, did you actually become a part of this therapeutic process? They share so much.
One can’t fully remove oneself from the process, I guess. I met [Lithuanian filmmaker] Audrius Stonys the other day, and he said that when it comes to documentary filmmakers, with one eye they feel and cry with the main characters, and with the other they see what the audience will see. Yes, I was present and it’s a big part of it, especially with a subject like this, dealing with things that have to do with traumatic loss. In the film, one person talks about this constant fear of something happening to her children because she already knows that “the impossible” can happen – and that your entire world can change with just one phone call.

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