A Remedy to Fears: Filmmaker Jason Cohen Discusses His Documentary ‘Facing Fear’ and the Power of Forgiveness
You come face to face with the man who tried to kill you. You’re not in a courtroom. You’re not visiting a prison. You’re not having a nightmare.
You are in the heart of the Museum of Tolerance, wondering how a would-be assassin managed to cross the threshold of such a haven without bursting into flames. But you soon realize that the circumstances which have put this man before you dictate that he is a changed and remorseful person. Do you forgive him?
Filmmaker Jason Cohen grappled with this very question while working on his short documentary Facing Fear. In the film, two men meet by chance 25 years after a brutal hate crime, bringing the dregs of that night to bubble up to the surface of their lives.
It was 1980, and 13-year-old Matthew Boger, disowned by his mother for coming out as a homosexual, was living on the streets of Hollywood. Seventeen-year-old Timothy Zaal was flying high after a charged night with his friends at a neo-Nazi punk rock show, heavily influenced by the white supremacy movement.
The night ended with Boger on the cold asphalt of a fast-food parking lot, beaten by a group of rowdy teens yelling down hateful slurs at him — all for being gay. Zaal delivered the final blow — a kick to the face that knocked out the adolescent boy. Boger never forgot the man with the 16-inch Mohawk who tried to show his friends “how it’s done.” Zaal drove home with his buddies in complete silence, unsure of whether he had killed someone that night.
Zaal severed ties with the white supremacy movement later in life, and began publically speaking about his experiences through his presentation “From the Depths of Hate.” The journey toward redemption was no easy task to begin with, but when he realized that Boger, the manager of the Museum of Tolerance where Zaal was to give a presentation, had been the victim of that night’s hate-fueled barrage of violence, the waters began to churn.
The film, shortlisted for the 2014 Oscars, allows each man to narrate his respective story using individual interviews — from their initial violent meeting, to their surprising encounter as adults, and the rough road to reconciliation that followed. For the past six years they have been touring together, delivering a presentation about their experiences called “From Hate to Hope.” Their individual accounts are the core strength of the film, giving viewers the chance to experience the story of that same fateful night from both the cold floor of the parking lot as well as in the midst of a heated group of thugs. Apart from the ingenious narrative, the cinematography was a powerful ally in the retelling of this story, and especially poignant in setting the scene for Boger to recount his version of the events on location. Cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko took care to have various shots evoke the somber mood of Boger’s horrible memory while juxtaposing that with the bright, glaring lights of Hollywood. However, though there are plenty of intense moments that give a glimpse into the two men’s turbulent past and the power of forgiveness, the film would have benefitted from more scenes with both Boger and Zaal together on the screen, allowing for more chances to witness their relationship.
The focus on forgiveness comes from Cohen, who was exploring stories about compassion and reconciliation through film — and this situation struck him in particular. Co-produced by the Fetzer Institute, a private organization that advocates for projects about love and forgiveness, Facing Fear digs deeper into the lives of these two men and explores their extraordinary story from both sides. Cohen is also currently working with the Fetzer Institute on a long-form documentary that should be released by Spring 2014 titled Four Women, One World. The film tackles similar themes of love, compassion and forgiveness on a global scale.
In a conversation with GALO, Cohen describes the trials of digging into such an emotional shared experience, and reveals how making this documentary has affected his view on forgiveness, and what he would have done in Boger’s place.
GALO: Timothy Zaal and Matthew Boger have been talking about their story since 2006 through their presentation “From Hate to Hope.” There was some press about it (Oprah, CNN), but you wanted to delve deeper into their backgrounds to tell the whole story. In the film, we find out that Boger was kicked out of his home and disowned by his mother. Was it difficult when you were digging deeper into their lives to get Zaal and Boger to feel comfortable, to trust you with such painful memories? In what ways do you see that both men and their relationship have changed since their story came out all those years ago?
Jason Cohen: One of our main motivations going in was to really explore where they had gone, and how far they’ve come in those years since they’ve come back into each other’s lives through this process of forgiveness. And for me, part of that was trying to dig a little deeper into their backgrounds to see what was leading them in certain directions before the attack happened, after the attack happened, and, of course, when they came back into each other’s lives and started this process together. So, it certainly took a little bit of trust building that I think any filmmaker, with any subject, needs to attempt to deal with to reach a level where they’re comfortable sharing their emotions, their thoughts, and going to places they don’t necessarily want to go to, or to places they haven’t gone before.
Tim and Matthew had been out speaking for a while about their story, and I think I wanted to challenge them a little bit to get out of that. Whenever they go out and speak, it certainly is raw and it’s real, but I just wanted to get them a little bit out of their comfort zone. It was a little bit of developing a trust with them, I think particularly with Matthew. He does end up sharing things that he had bottled up and really never spoken about, and they had just really not come to the surface until he was able to examine them through this process of forgiveness.
GALO: You’re working on a bigger film project about love and forgiveness on a global scale. What are the similarities and differences of those stories in comparison to the American experience involving Zaal and Boger, and does their story translate on a global level? What about Zaal and Boger’s story made you decide it warranted its own piece, separate from your bigger project?
JC: The bigger film we’re working on, Four Women, One World, has similar themes. It’s about love, compassion, and forgiveness being infused into people’s work around the world. There certainly are themes that come up fairly regularly in anyone’s life and they certainly cross over to Matthew and Tim’s story, but that being said, the stories in the other film didn’t quite fit with Matthew and Tim’s, so that’s why we decided to take their story and put it out as its own film.
For example, there’s a forgiveness story in the bigger film and it’s about post-war reconciliation and forgiveness in Northern Uganda, so it’s very different, but equally as tough of a story and tough of a situation for the people involved — people who had gone through some horrific acts committed by their neighbors and who are now living together.
We [also] have a woman who’s doing work in Afghanistan to help educate young women, who have a lack of education and a lack of access to education. We have a woman who is a fashion designer, who is trying to make sure that weavers in India don’t lose the art that they’ve had for years, and also that they get paid appropriately for the work that they’re doing and aren’t overlooked. And we have a woman who is an engineer, who is trying to change the way engineers look at their work instead of just using their talents to build, whether it be bombs or planes or mechanical devices, but rather trying to use their talents for the human good.
(Interview continued on next page)