Let me start by saying this: I am a huge fan of cinema. So, for me to be able to write a few lines about the power of art, and specifically of film, to show people how justice works in our ultra-developed and ultra-rich societies is a true self-indulgent privilege. Throughout the last ten years, having studied Criminology since my undergraduate studies up until my current Ph.D research in the field of Restorative Justice, I have gained a good understanding of how the criminal justice system works but also became acutely aware of just how difficult it is to successfully inform the public about it. When the conversation turns to crime, everyone seems to have an opinion, many times strong opinions fuelled by the not so objective press coverage of particularly brutal, but thankfully rare crimes in our societies. Also, thankfully, most people in our societies never comes into contact with the criminal justice system, so the knowledge regarding its inner workings tends to be low. Moreover, the typical master frame for understanding crime offered to the public by the media defines the relationship between victims and offenders as straightforward and unambiguous (Pemberton, 2015; Tulloch, 2006). Intuitively, this frame makes it easier to empathise with the victim but mainly if this is a person described as an “ideal victim”, meaning that there was a total absence of ‘victimogenic factors that might have promoted or facilitated the victimisation’ (Fattah, 1999: 203). However, reality tends to be a colour picture, no black and white. It tends to be even more difficult for someone in their everyday life to empathise with the person responsible for the harm, which is placed at an infinite distance by the label of offender and the dehumanising description that often we find of them in the news.

It is in this type of context that Pali & Pelikan (2010: 101-102) describe Newsmaking Criminology as: 

‘… criminologists’ conscious efforts and activities in interpreting, influencing, or shaping the presentation of ‘newsworthy’ items about crime and justice. This approach argues that to transcend our passive contribution to such socially constructed and publicly consumed crime truths, it is necessary for criminologists to actively intercede in the constitutive process of such knowledge and truth. Newsmaking criminology works in the theoretical framework of a replacement discourse, which is directed at the dual process of deconstructing prevailing structures of meaning and displacing these by completely new conceptions, distinctions, words and phrases, which convey alternative meanings.’ 

It is important to stress that in our liquid post-modern societies, our attention span is increasingly becoming shorter as we continuously engage in multiple parallel activities and ultra-fast but often superficial lifestyle: in the era of fast food, fast dating, fast entertainment and fast news, all of which easily accessible with a few scrolls in our screens, there is little time or patience for a conversation about something that tends to be the very opposite of fast or easy: Justice. And so, comes the question relevant for us working in the restorative justice field: how can we successfully raise societal awareness regarding restorative justice in a context where people have little knowledge about the criminal justice system’s workings, but also of the fields of victim support or offender rehabilitation and prison services? 

Pali’s (2007) conclusions in the aftermath of the European project Building Social Support For Restorative Justice are particularly relevant at this point. A key point for the development of my argument in this blog is that the more explicit and informative a message is, the less effective will be. This is not such good news for RJ because in general RJ services and programmes use mainly explicit and informative formats to target their audiences, while failing to use entertainment approaches’ (Pali, 2007: 79). 

Pali & Pelikan (2010: 102) strongly encourages RJ activists, academics and practitioners to invest in the education-entertainment approach. Drawing from Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, the education-entertainment approach ‘is based upon the belief that emotional appeals incited by a message can lead to attitude change especially when people’s motivation to think about the message is low.’ (Pali & Pelikan, 2010: 102). In this context, ‘the synergy of entertainment and education consists of deliberately combining the joy of entertainment with the empowering potential of education’ (Pali & Pelikan, 2010: 96). 

And this is where film, both a visual form of art and a hugely popular mainstream entertainment format, becomes important to educate the public about the conventional criminal justice system and restorative justice. According to Liebmann (2017: 75) ‘visual art can be used with offenders to help them gain more awareness of what is involved in their offence. They can also be asked to imagine what their victims have gone through, and this helps them to empathise with them more.’ Following Liebmann’s line of thought, we can argue that films have great potential to help the general public gain more awareness of what is involved in  conventional criminal justice, how prisons work, what restorative justice offers that is different and important, and what the experiences of victims and offenders navigating the aftermath of harm, recovery and rehabilitation look like. It should help the public to empathise with not so “ideal victims” and with offenders as human beings. It should help the public to imagine for a moment how it is to walk in their shoes and what in those circumstances RJ can offer that is valuable. The European Forum for Restorative Justice has explored, with great success, the power of film to raise awareness for Restorative Justice. Produced by the EFRJ, the film “A Conversation” focuses on the restorative meeting of two families dealing with the aftermath of a rape and murder case and its perpetual impact in their lives. Espen Marius described his experience in the following words:  ‘I was astonished, because I felt that I had experienced an exceptional way of understanding how a RJ process takes place and functions in reality’ (Marius Foss, Cerón i Riera & Biffi, 2017: 122). 

Unfortunately, our ability to produce new films around our topics of interest is limited. Equally limited is our ability to reach the mainstream public in mass. People are often attracted to certain films, in movie theatres or through streaming services, because of the Hollywood household names of the lead actors and it is, in this sense, that films like “The Accused” (1988), starring Jodie Foster, “Primal Fear” (1996), starring Richard Gere, and the more recent “The Mustang” (2019), starring Matthias Schoenaerts, represent incredible resources when we think how art and entertainment can help us inform and educate the public about some of the main subjects relevant to RJ. The point of this blog contribution is firstly to invite and encourage our readership to watch or re-watch each of these films, and then organise their exhibition and following discussion with groups of the general public. Watching these films in a cycle should leave these audiences with much food for thought for many days after the films are over. 

In this sense, in the following paragraphs I will not describe in detail or give away the entire films. But I will explore in detail some sequences that are particularly relevant to demonstrate how together these three films can work as a film cycle, through which the public should be able to consider justice from different perspectives. All of those perspectives are fundamental for Restorative Justice in their own way. The first two films I referred, “The Accused” and “Primal Fear” cover the time between the crime event and the trial at court. “The Accused” tells the story of Sarah (Jodie Foster), a young woman that is victim of gang rape. She is “not the ideal victim of rape”: she was under the influence of drugs and alcohol at time of the rape. The strategy of defence is clear: there was no rape. Whatever happened that night, happened between consenting adults. And so, the victim becomes the accused right in front of the audience’s eyes. The film is now 33 years old and, thankfully, not totally translatable to today’s reality. We moved forward considerably, but some key problems remain unaltered. The film is also a great instrument to see the plea bargain mechanism in action. The prosecutor, judging the prospects of her case grim, negotiates and makes an agreement that leaves Sarah completely without a voice, recognition or validation, all basic needs beautifully portrayed by Foster and that mirror the consistent findings from victimological research. In one of the most powerful dialogues in the entire film, the victim says in desperation:

‘Who the hell are you to decide that I ain’t good enough to be a witness? I’m some slut that got bounced around a little bit in a bar, right?’ ‘So I didn’t get raped, huh? I never got raped? How come it doesn’t say that? You don’t understand how I feel! … ‘I’m standing there with my pants down and my crotch hung out for the world to see and three guys are sticking it to me …  … and a bunch of other guys are yelling and clapping … and you are standing there telling me that that’s the best you can do?’  (31m.:28s. -31m.:48s.)

‘He sees I am a piece of shit’, everybody figures I’m a piece of shit, you told them that. I never got to tell nobody nothing. You did all my talking for me.’  (40m.:16s.-40m.:32s.)

“Primal fear” also follows the conventional criminal process but in this case through the justice experience of a defence lawyer, former public prosecutor. It is excellent to juxtapose the needs of the victim, in the story of Sarah, with the cold, logical defence strategy adopted by the defence lawyer Martin Vail enacted by Gere. ‘Marty, you ‘re a master at putting the victim on trial to help your client’ (33m.:54s.). Watching the two movies in a series also captures the different attitudes of the justice professionals who represent victim and offender in the conventional criminal process and how they may be in conflict with the needs and will of victims and offenders. It works very well translating to the screen the main arguments of Nils Christie in “Conflict as Property”. 

But there is also a bridge between “Primal Fear” and “The Mustang”. Gere’s words go to the heart of offender rehabilitation, and become particularly challenging by the end of the film. At 1h.:20m.:55s., Martin asks a journalist what that journalist was craving to ask him during their entire conversation:  ‘How can you defend someone if you know they did it?’

Gere’s Martin Vail responds: ‘I choose to believe in the basic goodness of people, I choose to believe that not all crimes are committed by bad people and I try to understand that some very, very good people do some very bad things’ (1h.:22m.:30s.- 1h:22m.:46s.). And finally, this takes us to “The Mustang”. Morris (1995: 21) described the experience of 23 Nevada judges who, in 1971, experienced to spend one single night in prison. The experience was reported in Time with one of the judges having said: “I felt like an animal in a cage. Ten years in there must be like 100 or maybe 200”

That is one of first powerful intuitions the spectator can have watching “The Mustang”. As the wild Mustangs are captured and kept in the programme facilities to be tamed and, ultimately, to be put to use in society (as police horses), so it seems the inmates are kept in prison to be tamed, and ultimately released back into the community. The scene where Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) sees his horse for the first time is also very rich: The horse is violent inside a box, completely caged. Is Coleman’s situation any different the director seems to be asking the spectator? Even in his cell, it is not his cell. His small space where he can have some peace and privacy to think is not his because he is sharing it with an inmate he does not like. The film depicts well the idea of Braswell, Fuller & Lozoff (2001: 82):

‘One of the most unpleasant aspects of prison life is the company one is forced to keep. Being surrounded by a variety of individuals, including murderers, thieves and rapists can be uncomfortable even for individuals who have committed those crimes themselves. … These pains of imprisonment are what define prison life and make it so unpleasant that additional punishment is not necessary to make prisons a place where inmates do not wish to remain or return.’  

It is not a superficial film. It delves deep into the realities of prison life and some of the main myths that often poison the public regarding the topic of offender rehabilitation.  It is a very good translation to screen of the words of Morris (1995: 29): 

‘So we take such a person, with a lower than average self-image, and we put that person into prison: take away almost all opportunities to contribute creatively, make their own decisions … and even to maintain whatever positive social skills and ties they had. We further limit contact with the few faithful family who try to keep the ties alive, humiliate those family members when they try to visit, subject the prisoner to blind and random harassment, humiliation and punishment, enrage them while keeping them helpless. We subject them to sensory deprivation and prevent them from keeping up with rapid social change in the outside world … Then, two or five or ten years later, we turn them out into the world. Their family ties are weaker or gone, their knowledge of how to shop or interact or travel is gone. They feel like the letters EXCON are stamped visibly on their forehead. Forced to be violent in the violence of the prison setting, they have little idea how to respond to non-violent social contact. … In this situation, would you expect the persons to fit into society positively?’

At one point, Roman receives the visit of his young adult daughter. She is pregnant. He does not know her and goes towards the wrong girl. The spectator is confronted with the total lack of family bonds. But they are father and daughter and they are in front of each other for the first time in many years. There is no eye contact: He looks at the table, she looks at the papers on the table. There is silence. Then, he asks her why  she’s there? She answers him that she needs his signature on her emancipation documents. In a fraction of a second, he signs the papers without even reading their title. The only thing he says to her is ‘Don’t come back here’ (16m.:54s.) and he returns to his cell. Now, how does Roman change during the film? Linked to this question, in the words of Van Der Elst & Schoovaerts (2017: 96), ‘how can we make offenders think about their conflicts, the damage to their victims and society and make them move towards restoration? In the prison environment talking openly about these topics isn’t always easy for inmates.’ In the film, Roman’s work with the wild mustangs coupled with his attendance in an empathy programme becomes the pathway for him to face his crime, acknowledge his anger management problems and, consequently work on his self-control, and face the harm he caused to his partner and their daughter. In a second visit, the spectator is confronted with the deconstruction of one of the most popular myths regarding prison life: that ‘prisoners like jail: a good bed, three square meals a day, nothing to do and television all day’ (Morris (1995: 30). In one of the most emotionally charged scenes his daughter says to him:  ‘I need the money to raise this baby. What do you know about taking care of a baby? What do you know about taking care of anything?’ Here, where your clothes are washed, your meals are served. You have a bed. Shit you even tan. You’re a dependent of the state, and it’s like you’re on permanent fucking vacation.’ Roman’s emotions take the best of him. ‘Shut the fuck up’ (28m.:09s.-28m.:40s) he angrily yells at his daughter before the scene ends. Without desiring to spoil the end of the film, I would finish by referring to the beautifully screened translation of the restorative power of dialogue, and apology in particular, between father and daughter, between victim and the person responsible for the harm. Their relationship is not magically restored in a moment but the spectator witnesses all the effort it takes for Coleman to initiate a path towards making amends for what he has done. He moves from apathy, total lack of trust and hope to a different mind-set where he no longer gives up on himself, and slowly acquires more and more trust, as small milestones are achieved. 

A final note to stress that for Roman in “The Mustang” the crucial opportunity for change starts with a technical decision to give him the chance to work in an outdoor maintenance programme, where he can have a little more contact with the outside, even if within the confinement of the prison walls. In this context, a discussion with the public about what the normalisation principle means in terms of how we think of imprisonment and offender rehabilitation may also prove extremely timely. The operation of the normalisation principle, in a very simple manner, means that the living conditions inside prison are made as much as possible similar to those in the community so that the offender’s future reintegration in that community is facilitated (De Vos, 2021). As such, I leave you with a supplementary reading suggestion: the recent Doctoral Dissertation defended at KU Leuven by Dr. Helene De Vos titled The normalisation principle. A new perspective on imprisonment. 

Ana Pereira is a Ph.D researcher at Leuven Institute of Criminology (LINC), KU Leuven. 

Article published on 17 November 2021.

cover image: seats in a cinema, photo by Mark Lorch from flickr.com


Braswell, M. Fuller, J. & Lozoff, B. (2001). Corrections, Peacemaking and Restorative Justice: Transforming individuals and institutions. Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing. 

De Vos, H. (2021). The normalisation principle. A new perspective on imprisonment. Doctoral Dissertation. Leuven: KU Leuven. 

Fattah, E. (1999). From a handful of dollars to tea and sympathy: The sad history of victim assistance. In J. Van Dijk, R. Van Kaam & Jo-Anne Wemmers (eds.), Caring for crime victims. Selected Proceedings of the 9th International Symposium on Victimology (pp. 187-206). Monsey, New York: Criminal Justice Press. 

Liebmann, M. (2017). Using visual arts approaches to enchance victim awareness. In E. Biffi & B. Pali (eds.), Restorative Imagination: Artistic Pathways (pp. 75-83). Leuven: European Forum for Restorative Justice. 

Marius Foss, E., Cerón i Riera, M. & Biffi, E. (2017). A Conversation: from theatre to film. In E. Biffi & B. Pali (eds.), Restorative Imagination: Artistic Pathways (pp.118-123). Leuven: European Forum for Restorative Justice. 

Morris, R. (1995). Penal Abolition: The Practical Choice. Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Schoolars’ Press Inc.

Pali, B. (2007). Media Toolkit for Restorative Justice Organisations. Leuven: European Forum for Restorative Justice. 

Pali, B. & Pelikan, C. (2010). Building Social Support For Restorative Justice: Media, Civil Society, and Citizens. Leuven: European Forum for Restorative Justice. 

Pemberton, A. (2015) Changing frames? Restorative justice in the Netherlands. In I. Vanfraechem, D. Bolívar & I. Aertsen (eds.), Victims and Restorative Justice (pp. 126-152). Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge. 

Tulloch, J. (2006). One day in July: Experiencing 7/7. London: Brown. 

Van Der Elst, V. & Schoovaerts, B. (2017). Restorative justice behind bars: a graffiti art project. In E. Biffi & B. Pali (eds.), Restorative Imagination: Artistic Pathways (pp.96-97). Leuven: European Forum for Restorative Justice.