Meet the Oscar-Nominated Filmmakers: Jason Cohen, Director/Producer, 'Facing Fear '
Synopsis: As a 13-year-old, Matthew Boger was thrown out of his home for being gay. While
living on the streets of Hollywood, he was savagely beaten in a back alley by a group of neo-Nazi skinheads. Boger managed to survive the attack and escape life on the streets. Twenty-five years later, Boger found himself in a chance meeting with a former neo-Nazi skinhead, Tim Zaal. The two men soon realized that they had met before...Zaal was one of the attackers who had beaten Boger and left him for dead.
With their worlds turned upside down, the two embarked on a journey of forgiveness and reconciliation that challenged both to grapple with their own beliefs and fears. Neither could imagine that it would to lead to an improbable collaboration...and friendship.
Facing Fear retraces the haunting accounts of the attack and the startling revelation that brought these men together again. Delving deep into their backgrounds, the roots of the ideologies that shape how they handle the reconciliation process are exposed. Self-doubt, anger and fear are just a few of the emotions they struggle through as they come to terms with their unimaginable situation.
We spoke to director/producer Jason Cohen via email about the making of his Academy Award-nominated documentary short, Facing Fear.
D: How did first hear about Matthew and Tim's story? Had you worked with the Museum of Tolerance before? [Matthew and Tim present their story regularly at the Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance. ]
Jason Cohen: I met Matthew and Tim through the Fetzer Institute, for which I was doing a
larger film project. Fetzer is a nonprofit that does work around promoting awareness of love and forgiveness around the globe. They were doing some outreach with Matthew and Tim's presentation at the Museum of Tolerance and introduced me to their story. When I first read about it, it was almost too
remarkable to believe; it sounded scripted. I knew there was a compelling film to be made about the circumstances of the attack and their "re-introduction" to each other, but we also wanted to really explore the process of forgiveness they had gone through at that point for six years. The attack in the film took place in 1980, when the term "hate crime" wasn't in the lexicon, but I knew that the themes of bullying, hate and homophobia were still all too relevant today and that there was a large audience who could connect with that as well.
D: Did you always intend to film Matthew and Tim separately as they related their respective stories of forgiveness and reconciliation? Did you consider filming them together?
JC: We did film Matthew and Tim together at times, and there is one shot from an
interview with the both of them in the film, but in the end my editor Tom Christopher and I decided that in order to build the tension and drama of their story, we wanted them juxtaposed so we almost had two trains on a collision course, eventually colliding and then seeing the aftermath and resolution of it
This also worked to set up the two of them in their respective worlds, which were foreign yet similar in many respects. The idea was to show partially that these two men came from somewhat similar backgrounds but ended up on divergent paths. In the end, though, it was those similarities that may have eventually led to them having the capacity to form the bond they now share.
D: Your bio on the film's website states that you are "in production on a global film about love and forgiveness that has taken [you] around the world to highlight stories in Uganda, India, Haiti, Spain and Italy." Did this project evolve from Facing Fear?
JC: The larger project was in conjunction with the Fetzer Institute. We originally shot five
stories around the globe. Facing Fear was one of those stories. It was obvious early on when we cut a rough cut that this film didn't fit with the rest of what we had filmed. Matthew and Tim's story
was working on its own and it had some real "teeth" to it. After consulting with some colleagues, they agreed that we should put it out there as its own short. The other four pieces we shot (all about women) now make up a feature film called Four Women, One World, which we will roll
out in the spring. It has very different feel and tone to it, highlighting efforts in different fields of work that are inspiring people to change the landscape of their world.
D: As you've screened Facing Fear—whether on the festival circuit, or in
screening rooms, or in living rooms—how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions? Matthew and Tim have been working together for six years in both presenting their story and in continuing their process of healing and forgiveness. I
assume that they have joined you on screenings. How is this experience different from what they've been doing at the Museum of Tolerance?
JC: We have received overwhelmingly positive reaction to the film. Wherever we have shown it across the US and in Europe, the audience always has something they can connect to in the film. It has opened up lengthy discussions that usually tend to last significantly longer than the film itself. I think part of this is because people tend to see the principles and ideas of forgiveness as a basic fundamental of human nature that we can all relate to even if our own circumstances aren't as dire as Matthew and Tim's were.
We have also had people who don't agree or "buy" the idea of forgiveness that is presented in Matthew and Tim's story, and we are okay with that too. We didn't make the film to preach
forgiveness as the answer for everyone. Tim himself says in the film, "I don't know if I could forgive someone the way he [Matthew] has been able to forgive me." I feel the same way: after almost two years immersed in this world, I don't know if I could forgive someone either after a heinous attack like this. That gets to the core of what we were trying to convey, that forgiveness is an individualistic journey. There is no way to know how you will handle it until you are in the moment, bringing all your past experiences and societal factors into the equation.
I think the biggest surprise for me has been seeing people's openness to Matthew forgiving Tim, but
being almost outraged at the notion that Matthew might be able to forgive his mother, who threw him out of the home at the age of 13 because she didn't approve of his gay lifestyle. We have the evil neo-Nazi skinhead who wreaked havoc on scores of people over the years and left this meek teenager for dead, and audiences are at peace with him, but they can't get past the mother who Matthew feels was dealing with many of her own issues at the time of her mistakes. Of course, Tim is a completely changed person and self-described teddy bear nowadays, which audiences can plainly see, and it reinforces the other theme in the film that people have been most struck by, which is the power of
Tim and Matthew have been at numerous screenings to do Q&A, and the audience can really appreciate their story more when they see them together in the flesh. They have been doing their presentation at the museum for six years, but they have both acknowledged that Facing Fear is the first time they felt they have really been able to speak openly about the complete process of forgiveness and to speak about some of the past experiences and people, particularly family, that shaped decisions they made and potentially hindered their own process of forgiveness for a time. In particular, Matthew has never really spoken about his family beyond the facts of the incidents surrounding his departure from home and was able to confront some buried emotions for the first time, on camera.
D: The short documentary form is a challenging one for which to find an audience outside of the festival circuit. How have you been reaching your audiences? What are your future plans for Facing Fear?
JC: We have certainly relied on social media and word-of-mouth to spread the word on the film. We have screened at festivals across the country and those who have seen it for the most part have felt the need to let their friends know to look out for us.
We are currently working on the distribution for the film, which will include a broadcast as well as VOD and DVD availability, followed by a big educational push. When we made the film we knew
it could be a great tool for teachers, and there has already been a large demand from schools, universities, museums and institutions. We have done a few school screenings that have yielded extremely positive results with in-depth classroom discussions with students who are drawn in by all aspects of the story. We even screened the film at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, which was definitely one of the highlights of the past year. We hope to continue down that path as we move to get the film out to as wide an audience as possible.
Facing Fear will be screening on as part of IDA's annual DocuDay, Saturday, March 1, at 9:00 a.m. at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.
Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.