Lost For Life


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Rofé's unfussy style creates a sense of intimacy, allowing the viewer's attention to focus entirely on the speakers."

In 2005, the US finally succumbed to domestic and international pressure and banned the use of the death penalty for people who were aged under 18 when they committed their crimes. What many in the international community failed to notice was that it didn't abolish sentences of life without parole. This meant that people could still spend their entire lifetimes in prison, with no hope of release, for crimes they committed when arguably too young to understand what they were doing.

Joshua Rofé's documentary, made over four years, examines this issues through a series of interviews. Its interviewees include the criminals themselves, their parents, campaigners and the families of victims. The picture that emerges is a nuanced one. In some of these cases it's pretty clear that the convicted have yet to come to terms with what they've done, and as such are probably not ready for release. In other cases, experiences on the inside seem to have been transformative. One man, who killed a rival gang member when he was a teenager, talks about finding a new sense of identity through Islam and how he has gone on to work with young people, trying to prevent them from committing violent crimes themselves. Another, who killed his parents, gradually opens up about the horrific abuse that preceded his actions and reveals his own journey toward being able to forgive.

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The victims' views are varied. Some find that forgiveness is liberating for them; others dread the thought of those who killed their loved ones being at large again. In intensely emotional testimony, they talk about their need for finality and the way the prospect of the killers being released means they cannot stop thinking about their loss.

Rofé's unfussy style creates a sense of intimacy, allowing the viewer's attention to focus entirely on the speakers. The only time we move out of this space is near the start, when the film includes video footage shot by two young murderers of the girl they would go on to kill and of their journey to and from her house on that fateful night. The naivete of this footage is telling in itself, and rather than being titillating, it gives the victim a human face, fitting neatly alongside one of her killers' account of his feelings about her then and later.

Films like this can be tricky to review because it's often what they don't do, rather than what they do, that makes them successful. There's no sentimental music here. There are no reaction shots, no cues to camera. What there is is much more powerful for its plainness. The point it succeeds in making - one often lost due to the polarisation that politics brings - is that repentance, forgiveness, recovery and justice are subtle things that depend on human beings, with one-size-fits-all solutions unlikely to work. Perhaps this should be obvious. History tells us it's not. Rofé reintroduces a much needed human perspective to the debate.

Reviewed on: 24 Jul 2014
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A documentary about people who were sentenced to life without parole by the US court system for crimes they committed as teenagers.

Director: Joshua Rofé

Year: 2013

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: US


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