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Making their case on film

When Russ Kelly was meeting the victims of his alcohol-fuelled vandalism spree in 1974, he had no idea the impact his actions, prompted by his probation officer, would have on laws all over the world. Nor that, decades later, the events would get made into a short film shown internationally.

A special screening of the film will take place Kitchener on Nov. 19, and has already been shown in film festivals across North America.

Twenty-eight years after he committed the crimes, Kelly was sitting in class at Conestoga College and a guest speaker started telling his story.

“It was a surreal moment,” he said from his home in Fergus. “I was sitting there in the second row and then it hit me. I thought, ‘oh my goodness, they are talking about me.’ I was floored. I was almost speechless.”

That guest speaker was Julie Friesen from Community Justice Initiatives (CJI) in Kitchener, and she was telling his story. In 1974, Kelly and a friend had a bit too much to drink, and made their way through Elmira’s residential areas, leaving a path of destruction with smashed windows and slashed tires in their wake.

When they were caught, Mark Yantzi, a local probation officer at the time, had the idea to have the two young men meet their victims and repair the damage they caused. The case, known as The Elmira Case, set the precedent for restorative justice on an international scale.

After Freisen made her presentation, Kelly approached her. CJI and Kelly teamed up to tell his story, and when the idea for an educational film was brought up, they both jumped at the chance.

In a still from The Elmira Case, Russ Kelly tells the story of a drunken night in 1974 and his reconciliation with victims. The film premieres in Kitchener on Nov. 19.
In a still from The Elmira Case, Russ Kelly tells the story of a drunken night in 1974 and his reconciliation with victims. The film premieres in Kitchener on Nov. 19.

“When you Google ‘Elmira and restorative justice,’ you get pages and pages from all over the world,” said Julie Thompson, director of programs with CJI. “Every publication or course or conference that talks about restorative justice usually has a little part that is dedicated to the Elmira story. Most people who live in the community don’t even know the story.”

Thompson and Friesen attempted to make the film themselves, but found the process overwhelming.

“We had already started the interviewing process, and especially when you are amateur like we are, there is often a difference between your vision of the project and your actual abilities to deliver on that,” said Thompson with a laugh. “We had miles of footage and, of course, timing was a challenge.”

With a little bit of financial help and moral support from local organizations like the Mennonite Savings and Credit Union, the Waterloo Arts Fund and the Shantz Mennonite Church, among others, CJI was able to hire Rosco Films out of Kitchener to create their final product, just in time for the 40th anniversary of the case.

The end result is a sixteen minute documentary telling Kelly and Yantzi’s story, along with four accompanying smaller films – one that talks about justice, a longer discussion piece about the case, and two case studies surrounding restorative justice. The films interview Kelly, Yantzi and some of the original victims of the crimes in 1974.

Rosco Films, the production company that put the film together, submitted the film to festivals and from there, the movie’s reach grew.

“It was accepted to the Peace on Earth Film Festival in Chicago and there was lots of amazing response to that,” said Thompson, adding that she has been contacted by international conferences to show the film as well. “Here I am, on the phone with South Korea, and they were telling me how excited they were to finally have a film to talk about The Elmira Case, because frankly, they were tired of telling the story. They got in touch with us and want to show the film this year in Mongolia (at the Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute’s restorative justice conference).”

Kelly is happy to see that his experiences are being used to help others all over the world, and to educate law enforcement and restorative justice groups on the benefit of reconciliation over incarceration. In his personal experiences in 1974, he says he found that facing his crime was more difficult than spending a few months behind bars.

“Something really turned out to be good from (the crimes) when it comes to closure, and healing and offenders are being, at times, forgiven for their wrongdoings and moving forward,” he said. “The victims are also experiencing closure and healing and having their say in things. I feel honoured to have done something that is really helping a lot of people in society, but at the time, I had no idea.

“(Going to jail) would be the easier thing to do. You go to court, you get your sentence, you do your six months and you are gone. (Meeting the victims) brings the humanity part into it. You are two feet in front of people on their front doorstep. Now we are seeing anger in their eyes, disgust on their faces and the hurt.”

The film is being shown on Nov. 19 at the Apollo Cinema  in Kitchener at 7 p.m., with a question-and-answer period to follow. The event is sold out, but CJI is showing the film twice more – once at The University of Waterloo on Nov. 20, and the other at Conestoga College on Nov. 26.

For more information about the film, to view the trailer or to inquire about showings, visit cjiwr.com/event.

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