Darius Clark Monroe stood inside a New York bank feeling panicked, overcome with an irrational fear he would be robbed. The NYU film student was in no physical danger, but inside he felt crushed by the weight of his past.

Years earlier, a 16-year-old Monroe and two friends—one of them armed with a shotgun—had burst into a Houston-area bank and demanded money from terrified clerks and patrons. Monroe was certified as an adult, pleaded guilty, and served several years in prison before being released and entering film school. Now years later, in a bank more than a thousand miles from Texas, Monroe was thinking about karma.

“I realized I had never made amends,” Monroe, 33, said at South by Southwest after the world premiere of his documentary Evolution of a Criminal, explaining the impetus for the film. He knew if he was ever going to heal, he had to find the people inside the bank that day and apologize, no matter how painful it might be and regardless of whether they would accept it.

The film, directed by Monroe and executive produced by Spike Lee, follows Monroe through each step of that journey. It also explores the repercussions of the robbery through the stories of Monroe, his accomplices, and their victims, including some who remained wary of the filmmaker’s motives. (Former Fort Bend County prosecutor Stacey Brownlee, who handled Monroe’s case, comes across in the film as cautiously optimistic that he’s turned his life around.)

To varying degrees, everyone in the bank that day bears scars from the crime, even though no one was injured.

“No one has to be harmed physically to have a traumatic experience,” Monroe said.

The film goes out of its way to show Monroe was not a bad kid. Bright and well liked at school, he turned to crime out of desperation, the film explains, overwhelmed by his family’s financial troubles.

Monroe presents these factors as explanation, not excuse. His goal is to make things right, he says, and to show people in similar predicaments that redemption is possible.

“We’re losing our young men,” Lee said after the Austin premiere, explaining why he got involved with the project. “Young brothers out there are lost, and they needed to see it.”

You can follow Evolution of a Criminal on Facebook and Twitter.

Image courtesy of SXSW