Eric is a Katrina survivor who has built a new life for himself and his son Tre in Oakland, California. From his own childhood, he knows all too well the importance of fathers and father figures, particularly in the lives of young African Americans. That’s not the only reason he’s a restorative justice warrior in a really rough high school, but it just might be the reason he’s so good at it. Restorative justice tries to understand the circumstances which contribute to crime. Its emphasis is on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation. In terms of Eric’s work, his bottom line is to keep kids in school, to keep them from getting expelled, and maybe even graduate. He sees a lot of himself in his students, and even though the staff and school board often feel at odds with his work, he perseveres and fights hard for them.
But during the making of this documentary, Eric’s own son is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. So you can imagine that Eric’s ethics and beliefs (not to mention patience) are tested, and his son is about to be his toughest case. That’s what so great about documentary film – sometimes the movie you set out to make ends up morphing into something else entirely. You couldn’t really have planned this if you tried, but over the course of two years, director Cassidy Friedman has incredible access to this collision between Eric’s personal and professional lives.
Eric’s work is in impoverished neighbourhoods. His students are largely people of colour, vulnerable, with unstable family situations. He’s fighting racial discrimination, the insidious, every day kind, even if that’s not explicitly stated. He connects to the kids because the tragedies of his own life are so similar, and he’s not shy to relate them. But when things disintegrate for his son, he starts to really question himself, his efficacy as a teacher and as a father.
What Circles becomes is a sad, honest, difficult portrait of a man who is desperate to be the father his own could never be.