Wayne (Luke Ford) is a slow and naive young apprentice with serious anger management issues. The opening sequence shows him drinking then violently ramming his ute into a white Jaguar, again and again, leaving his hapless victim stunned and whiplashed. The victim’s wife is looking on in horror. ‘What a bastard’ we think. Gradually, during a cathartic alternative dispute resolution (‘ADR’) session explicitly intended to avoid court and jail for the perpetrator, we actually feel our alliances and sympathies shift. The seemingly straightforward narrative of the likeable family-man boss as the victim of an outrageous assault by a disgruntled employee gradually turns into a more complex picture of the effects of workplace bullying, mismanagement, corrupt workplace culture, childhood domestic violence, with some sexual infidelity thrown into the mix.
The skill of the new genre is that over a brief hour and a half, the audience can be moved from gung-ho punitiveness to a more nuanced barracking for the put-upon perpetrator of violence. Roll over Neil Mitchell and shock jocks everywhere! The creative touch has made us feel what social science research has already definitively established: the more we know about a crime and the criminal, the more measured our responses to punishment.
We begin to see how history and events can escalate to ‘cause’ a crime well beyond the substantive law’s technical understanding of this concept. A simple young man, a child of domestic violence, remains vulnerable. Wayne has few resources and even fewer opportunities. When he assaults a workmate in response to persistent bullying, the boss fires him and his small world is shattered. Ramming the boss’s car is vengeance, but paradoxically also a weird demand for consideration. ‘I just want my job back’.
The ‘victim’ is formally in the right, but, extra-legally, is also complicit in the incident. He knows about the bullying but does nothing to prevent it. Also, he’s not simply innocent in other ways. Aspects of his life make him ‘karmically’, if not legally, at least partially responsible for his fate. He’s a bad boss, who diddles his workers, which in turn makes for bad morale, which in turn leads them to act out in the workplace, mostly against each other. The boss’s extra-marital dalliances contribute to the conflicted work environment and the sense of entitlement typically encountered by Worksafe inspectors. Things in the real world are seldom black and white. Nor, as the ADR literature reminds us, are things as neat as law and courtroom adjudication processes need to pretend. Face to Face is, in that sense, indirect marketing for the restorative justice idea and the community conferencing approach.
David Williamson became interested in restorative justice in the late 1990s and even trained as a mediator to understand the process better. He then wrote three plays in the genre, Face to Face being the first. Michael Rymer saw the play and recognised in it the dramatic potential of Twelve Angry Men — in this case, ten different people, related through work and/or sex, forced together to participate in a cathartic experience focused on, but not confined to, exploring the aetiology of a serious crime, or ‘incident’, as the mediator prefers to calls it.
The temptation, especially for law teachers, is to use ‘accuracy’ of the representation as the main criteria for evaluation. The short answer is that the depiction probably provides a fair enough reflection of this type of mediation in practice. And for the classroom, ‘spot the dramatic licence’ is itself a useful teaching opportunity. The actors are convincing (except perhaps Matt Newton as a young mediator) and the emotions expressed are close enough to the tears and hugs that have persuaded some social scientists and even hard nosed policemen of the benefits of this form of ADR. But law film genres should never be assessed as documentaries.
A fairer basis of evaluation of courtroom, and now mediation, films is how they grapple with the dialectics of crime and punishment. That is what makes To Kill a Mockingbird an enduring classic and why Atticus Finch remains the inspiration for many aspiring lawyers. The ADR film genre is unlikely to give us legal superheroes, and the story lines, as in this film, are more ‘kitchen sink’ than ‘big issue’, but the dysfunctional lives of people working in the scaffolding business in Face to Face still intrigue us.
Perhaps this new genre, with its more down to earth conflicts and ordinary characters, in contrast to the murder, mutiny, treason or rape trial movie, will elicit closer identification with the protagonists, particularly the otherwise jail bound perpetrator. That seemed to be the rationale of film-maker Mike Moore in awarding Face to Face the Travers City Film Festival Award in Michigan. ‘It is an amazing piece of cinema — riveting, thoughtprovoking, transformative. Not only should every person in Michigan see this film — but every person in America should see this film’, he said. I wonder if a low budget Australian film can be didactically useful in changing American and Australian sensibilities about the uselessness of traditional law and order politics. But that too is an entirely inappropriate criteria for evaluating a film. Just see it anyway.
KATHY LASTER teaches law at Monash University.