Some might say the criminals who appear in tonight's Maori Television documentary about restorative justice don't deserve the chance to apologise or be forgiven. After all, one stabbed his brother-in-law, one beat up his uncle, one ran over a three-year-old, one robbed a dairy and another broke a man's jaw. But this rap sheet isn't the whole story; and when more than half of prisoners reoffend within two years of release, perhaps jail isn't the whole answer.
As powerful as it is timely, Restoring Hope: An Indigenous Response to Justice examines a Maori approach to restorative justice. Contracted by the Ministry of Justice, the Manukau Urban Maori Authority (MUMA) arranges voluntary conferences in Auckland that bring together the offenders and the victims of crimes ranging from shoplifting to murder. (When a victim has died, the family attends.)
"In its simplest form, restorative justice is a conversation between the victim of a crime and the offender," says MUMA's restorative-justice manager Mike Hinton (Ngati Raukawa).
The witty, salt-of-the-earth former military man with the tattooed forearms is the right man both for the job and to front the doco. A faceless narrator would have felt intrusive, whereas Hinton's voiceover works well.
We see Hinton driving, talking to offenders at their homes, answering a call from a victim pulling out of a conference. We hear his strong opinions on "a criminal justice system failing too many and costing too much". We watch the emotional conferences he runs as hui.
Perhaps the most moving meeting is between an elderly Samoan man and the whanau of the three-year-old he ran over and killed (accidentally). Afterwards, the attending policeman lauds the participants' courage. "I see this working for both sides," he says, admitting that the police can "lose focus on the human element: the victims".
Restorative justice, however, is about the victims having their say. They get to talk about their anger and suffering. They get an apology, remorse and, sometimes, answers.
Hinton explains that restorative justice isn't about forgiveness (although it can be a by-product). "It's about communication." He talks about being heard and moving forward.
That "taking responsibility for hurt, harm and making amends" may break the cycle of crime. It's hard to disagree, especially when we watch as Billy, the teen who robbed a dairy, learn that the dairy owner not only bears him no ill-will but, like everyone else there, wants the best for him.
When footage is this compelling, the show-not-tell approach is the right one. The end result is a lesson in the power and value of restorative justice that strips away preconceptions.
Restoring Hope kicks off Maori Television's year-long line-up of Sunday-night documentaries. Tackling contemporary issues and telling surprising stories, they span everything from "what makes a Maori" and New Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan through to the holes in the case against convicted murderer Teina Pora. It's enough to restore hope in local documentary-making.
Restoring Hope, tonight, Maori Television, 8.30pm.