Even though the criminal and prison system is one that we all try to avoid, we may regularly meet, without knowing it, former inmates, young offenders and victims of crime. Instead of running away from this parallel universe, Karine Dubois and her team have jumped straight into it with their documentary miniseries Justice. A gateway into a world of regret and hope.

Centre de réadaptation Cité-des-Prairies de Montréal (Photo credit: Picbois Productions)

The beginnings

For the producer Karine Dubois, truth and quality of information have always been a top priority. After studying journalism, Karine worked extensively in documentary research and also as a web content consultant. Before founding her business Picbois Productions, she produced the movie Un trou dans le temps (A Hole in Time), in collaboration with Productions Virage. “I learned the skills of the trade while producing this film.”

Un trou dans le temps, which addresses the reality of prisoners serving long sentences, was a precursor to the Justice series: “Through this documentary, we came into contact with numerous interrelated realities we wanted to address. This is what brought the idea to the director Catherine Proulx to present the various aspects together, as a whole. The film was made in 2007, and at that time, the trend in the media was to explain justice as an opposition, as if giving rights to the victims absolutely required removing them from the inmates.”

Yet, what Karine and Catherine’s fieldwork showed was contrary to that vision: “We felt that their realities were more similar rather than opposed to each other. An inmate serving a life sentence and a victim of a crime could both tell us about the breakdown of relationships with their loved ones, about feelings of loneliness and about suffering. So, it all comes together very well. The trio of stories, including ex-inmates, victims and young offenders, became obvious. We evaluated all the possible options for this project until we found the right format. It took several years before we got a definitive confirmation but in the end, what stuck was the three one-hour documentary format at Télé-Québec, with a complementary web experience.”

La réalisatrice Catherine Proulx

Working without a template

In television production, teams typically set up a template episode and replicate the model to ease and speed up the process. When it comes to the Justice miniseries, each episode had its own particular challenge and approach: “In the case of young offenders, we had to find a way to convey emotions even if we could not show the faces of the teenagers. For the victims, we had to evoke events that happened in the past, but we did not want to make re-enactments. And for ex-inmates, the challenge was to report on their gradual rehabilitation, while the distance to them prevented us from shooting in real time.” This was a real challenge, with up to 25 days of editing per one-hour episode: “It's a mini-series, but in reality, it's as if we produced three documentaries on different topics!”

La productrice Karine Dubois (Photo credit: Julie Artacho)

A powerful reality, with tact

“Without this project, we would never have explored these worlds” admits the producer. “We faced strong realities. It was very confrontational. For example, the first time you enter a youth centre, it’s a shock. In front of a young offender, you are appalled, you are afraid, but gradually, you understand the dynamics that shaped them. Above all, you understand the exceptional work done by the youth workers. We are in awe of the people who do the fieldwork. We wanted to share our discoveries and make the spectators feel what we experienced.”

Again, the truthfulness of the representations is a crucial part of the production: “It’s important to us that our work truly reflect what people live in their communities. Those we interviewed thank us for making a documentary that fairly reflect their unique situation and they are happy that we could make it a reality. That is our ultimate recognition.” To ensure that they are as faithful as possible to the participants’ realities, Karine Dubois and her team have done their homework: “The research stage is huge, but this is what gives good results. We do long term development, we get involved and we build a strong bond of trust between us and the social workers. We do not want to trap people, use cunning or be voyeurs.” This work ethic has been a guarantee of success. While the producer expected to trigger a debate following the broadcast, on the contrary, the series Justice was received very favorably: “In fact, I expected to go to war and to have to defend our point of view but the comments were very positive. The viewers were thankful that we made them see things differently.”

Through the solid bonds created, the people and organizations with whom Picbois Productions have worked became ambassadors: “We wanted people in the community to take ownership of the project so they could talk about it.” And it worked, as one year after the original broadcast on television, the Justice project continues to find its way: “This kind of project has a life in the long run. For example, for the ex-inmate episode, we did a tour in ten cities with one of the organizations we are working with now. Gradually, we continue to seek the general public.”

Justice - Picbois Productions

Changing perceptions

With a topic more often dealt with in fiction series than in documentaries, it’s easy to wonder why Karine Dubois and her team decided to address the theme of criminals and victims: “It was important to talk about it because we realized that justice is a topic on which everyone has strong opinions but they are rarely based on facts.” Indeed, the subject is often very emotional, full of preconceived notions and prejudices. There is sometimes a gap between what those involved live and what the media convey: “Television programs on justice tend to present the 1% of sensationalist cases. We wanted to talk about the other 99% that correspond to the vast majority of cases. The goal is for people to see the nuances about justice and to clarify their opinions. We want the viewers to get facts, to get out of their preconceived notions and to understand why certain things work the way they do. That is what motivates us.”

In short, Karine Dubois has a keen desire to show things as they are in all her productions: “One of our future projects is about immigration. It shows young people from an integration class in Montreal. They are really bright, touching and they speak an impeccable French. It breaks preconceived notions.” Like the woodpecker that digs dead trees to find life, Karine Dubois tries to find truth in the chaos of prejudice. A concept as relevant now as ever.

The Justice mini-series is available on Télé-Québec online. To learn more about the topics covered, you can follow the series on Facebook, Twitter and the official website.