Circle Up, a documentary from director and producer Julie Mallozzi, follows the converging paths of two middle-aged Boston mothers after their sons are murdered. One mother responds by initiating Native American-style talking circles around the city.
“It’s a coming together of community,” Mallozzi says. Participants place a sacred object — a candle or an item that belonged to a deceased person — at the center. They pass an object from one person to another that acts as a talking piece, staying silent unless it’s in their hands. “It encourages deep listening. You’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next,” she says.
In the documentary, which screens at 2 p.m. on March 10 at the Institutes for Discovery, circle participants open up, reflect, heal and grow. “They managed to heal to a large degree and take this terrible incident and spin it into something that could do some good,” she says.
One mother develops a deep relationship with the man who killed her son. Together, they visit her son’s grave. The man begs for her forgiveness and they embrace, weeping.
The mothers in the documentary inspired Mallozzi to distribute the movie to justice-minded groups rather than through the more traditional route of film festivals.
Mallozzi’s fascination with repurposed cultural practices motivated her work on the documentary. She’s the daughter of a Chinese mother and an Italian American father who were the managers of a Native American historical site in rural Ohio.
“[Talking circles are] a tradition that’s been used for native peoples all over the world and now it’s being used in schools and prisons and housing projects,” Mallozzi says.
Circles are one component of a restorative justice system, an approach to crime and punishment that is growing in Madison. “Restorative practices humanize people,” says Lorrie Hurckes Dwyer, executive director of Dane County TimeBank, which is sponsoring the film screening. “It’s the best way I know to break down barriers, get to the root of the matter and begin healing.”
Since 2015, the TimeBank’s Youth Court, which Hurckes Dwyer facilitates, has diverted nearly 1,200 cases — usually involving minor citations like theft or cannabis possession — from the court system. In the sessions in area schools, young people and their families discuss the incidents and contributing factors with a trained jury of their peers. Together, they reach an agreement that supports the accused, the victims and the broader community.
As part of its Youth Court, the TimeBank recently began facilitating circles in local high schools to give students a safe space to talk about issues of their choosing. Circle topics center on safety and the school’s culture and climate.
Hurckes Dwyer hopes the film can be a starting point for people in the community to understand the benefit of expanding restorative justice: “My hope is that we, as a community, fully invest in the power of restorative practices as a means of violence prevention and community-building.”