Lost for Life -- a compelling new documentary about juvenile offenders who are serving life sentences without parole -- struggles mightily to answer the universal questions of crime, punishment and forgiveness.
Or, more simply, as posed in the opening sequence, "Are children uniquely more than their worst act?"
Or even more simply, "Are you going to make me care about them?
The answer, of course, is yes. It's what happens when we examine the why of even the most terrible crimes; there is almost always a reason other than pure evil. Horrific domestic abuse, mental illness, poverty, and in the case of adolescent boys, the near toxic chemistry of the teenage brain -- all factors that can make the taking of another life seem a logical outcome.
Filmmaker Joshua Rofé presents four stories of homicide and the resulting life sentences for the teenage offenders that continue to ravage all concerned -- the family members of both victims and offenders and the young men themselves as they have come to terms with what they did.
That's because time is the main character of the film -- the young men who killed have had years to examine what they did and why and the levels of reflection, realization and remorse are powerful.
Most compelling is the story of Brian Draper and Torey Adamcik -- not only because the hapless pair decided to kill a fellow high school classmate for almost no reason but because they videotaped themselves before and after they murdered an innocent young girl. The tapes are chilling in their casual insouciance and teenage arrogance and when the boys themselves admit that Columbine inspired them, ah!
Again, we ask how could this be?
Equally gripping is the story of a Sean Taylor -- a gang member who turned his life around so completely after a drive-by shooting that he was eventually released from prison because of his extraordinary work mentoring other inmates. Taylor's eloquence is one of the strongest arguments I've ever seen on the possibility of redemption.
Lost for Life is what true remorse looks like -- the long process of living with what you did, realizing why you did it and not accepting that reason as an excuse. Owning your worst act and changing your life accordingly. That the laws have changed to offer some hope for mandatory life sentences seems a logical response to the dramatic changes these young men go through in prison.
These stories of children who murder told by the men they have become make Lost for Life one of the most gripping documentaries of the year.
Mega-entrepreneur and "filmanthropist" Ted Leonsis can back any film he wants and he chose this one:
I'm a father of two children who have received every opportunity and grown into adults of whom I'm very proud. But what if that hadn't worked out -- what about the kids who faced abuse as children, or those who grew up in good homes but still committed murder? Who were they and what led to such an act? Were they monsters whose brutality (even if the only violence they had shown) marked a character forever deranged? Or were they still in the process of becoming a complete adult -- perhaps one in whom we could ultimately be proud? Those questions -- punishment and accountability, redemption and rehabilitation -- were all raised by Joshua's film and the young people it presented. So too was the terrible pain felt by the families of victims, and I could easily imagine experiencing their anger and sadness. I was particularly drawn to those victims who evidenced a spirit that seemed to reflect what my religious tradition taught: forgiveness. So I asked myself: could I forgive? Should any of us do so? As these complex and important issues swirled in my head, I knew I should help Joshua Rofé bring Lost for Life to a broad audience.
I recently interviewed filmmaker Joshua Rofé:
Nancy Doyle Palmer: What went into the selection process that present such a spectrum of stories that include one young man who still seems unrepentant and feels victimized to another who is now a fully evolved adult who has been paroled for his work in helping others.
Joshua Rofé: In my research I kept coming across what seemed to be juvenile lifers that fit sort of neatly into three nightmarish demographics:
1. The kids who were physically & or sexually abused for years, who then finally snapped and lashed out at their abusers.
2. The gang members whose early adolescence was dominated by drug-dealing & drive-by shootings.
3. And then finally, and most unsettling were the kids who committed these heinous murders that the media dubbed 'thrill kills'. They seemed to kill for no clear reason that their crimes could be traced back to.
I wanted to explore all of these demographics and find out who these people are. What traumas did they suffer causing them to become what they became? Have they changed? Have they even attempted to change? And ultimately can they be forgiven? In many ways the film functions as the parole hearing these juvenile lifers never had; each viewer a member of the parole board.
NDP: Speak to this idea that some adolescent male brains are literally impaired when these acts of violence are committed. Two of these young men say Columbine inspired them...
JR: There has been much research done that proves that adolescent male brains do not fully develop until the late 20s. As a 30-year-old, I can whole-heartedly agree. The part of the brain this research refers to is the frontal lobe, which is responsible for decision-making and the ability to weigh and recognize consequence. I believe in this research but I'd be lying if I didn't say that in regards to some of the cases explored in the film, I remain conflicted. In my opinion, only a truly 'broken brain' could plot a murder for weeks, film it's planning, and then not only carry it out but moments after the murder have the wherewithal to turn the video camera back on to state what you just did.
NDP: How did the process of hearing these stories and learning of these journeys affect you personally?
JR: The people I met while making this film left my heart and my guts with indelible scars. The pain that the victims' families, offenders' families, and the offenders themselves live with day in and day out is inescapable. Getting home from filming was always bizarre. Living in Los Angeles and seeing people just go about their lives and make their way through traffic just seemed so far away from the living rooms of the families I filmed with, or the holding area of a super-max prison. At the end of the day, I think I probably experienced a pretty major shift in perspective that has made me grateful for living a regular quiet existence.
NDP: How did your own thoughts evolve about the role of incarceration in American society?
JR: Over-sentencing and over-incarceration are an epidemic in the United States. Look no further than Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In; that film breaks down just how broken the system is. I also have friends who either served obscene sentences for crimes they did not commit and were saved by the Innocence Project or are still serving despicably long sentences due only to the color of their skin (Kenneth Young of Florida). That said, my film is about people who are guilty, they are the supposed 'worst of the worst' of juvenile offenders, and I was sometimes shocked find how much I liked some of them. They were human and they were and are in pain. Some of them are hoping for a second chance although they were never really given a first chance. The notion of empathy took on an entirely new meaning for me, but I also met juvenile lifers who are so far from the realm of redemption that it's terrifying. Terrifying because they look and sound just like our friends and neighbors. Ultimately, I was left to wrestle with this: Is a kid's life worth more than the worst thing they've ever done?