At age 13, Matthew Boger was banished from his mother’s Northern California home for being gay. To stay alive, the teenager prostituted himself on the streets of Hollywood, where, one night in 1980, he was brutally beaten up by a group of young skinhead neo-Nazis.
The attackers never knew that Boger miraculously survived the assault – until 25 years later, when one of the perpetrators met Boger by chance at, of all places, Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance.
Boger and his attacker, former neo-Nazi Tim Zaal, are the subjects of Berkeley filmmaker Jason Cohen’s Academy Award-nominated short documentary Facing Fear. Through interviews with Boger and Zaal, and an examination of their respective backgrounds, the film explores bigotry, transformation, and forgiveness. Cohen tells the startling story of the two men’s personal evolutions and their eventual, improbable friendship. Today, Boger and Zaal speak together at museums and schools, and continue to navigate the process of reconciliation.
Berkeleyside interviewed Cohen at the Saul Zaentz Media Center, where he edited and produced Facing Fear.
When and how did you first hear about Matthew and Tim?
I was introduced to Matthew and Tim through the Fetzer institute, who I did this project in collaboration with. Fetzer does work around promoting awareness of love and forgiveness. They had been doing some outreach with Matthew and Tim’s presentation at the Museum of Tolerance. They brought me in to make a film about some of the work they’re doing, and one of the stories was Matthew and Tim’s. I read it and I was immediately struck by it and decided I wanted to meet them and I thought it would make for a great film.
Something that struck me was that Tim, the attacker, is the first one who calls himself as an outsider in the film, when he’s talking about his upbringing. And throughout the film you tell the story like it belongs to both of them, straying a bit from the typical victim-versus-oppressor dichotomy. Can you talk about your decision to give both of them a voice?
Yeah, we felt like this was both of their stories. When you hear stories of forgiveness, immediately you assume the victim has the biggest hurdles to overcome. You’re more sympathetic to the victim, who must forgive the perpetrator. In our film we wanted to show that the perpetrator was going through equally difficult circumstances and challenges with this process of forgiveness as the victim was — and to make sure we show that it’s not one-sided at all, but a two-way street.
Traditional stories of forgiveness, or “forgiveness as an expression of love,” as Fetzer phrases it, are typically about one person or entity forgiving another. But Tim’s struggle is to forgive himself.
Tim was a really complex person. He’s lived a few separate lives and has been through a lot. He has scars to show for it, both physical and emotional. And he has a lot of guilt for some of the things he did in his past life — for what he did to other people, and particularly what it’s done to his son, being raised in that environment when Tim was involved in the White Power movement. We really wanted to make sure that came across — that he had a struggle with this, and forgiving himself was a big part of this whole process. Of course, we wanted to recognize Matthew’s issues as well. He went through a completely different set of circumstances and had horrific things that he had to overcome. And we didn’t want to ignore that either.
Did this story end up being the same one that you expected to tell when you began filming?
We set out to make a film about forgiveness. We obviously ended up telling a story about hate, and bullying, and homophobia — and compassion, and forgiveness, and love. A lot of things came out through the course of filming and we were really happy with that. And I think some aspects of the forgiveness that came out we weren’t expecting either. We weren’t quite sure how much Matthew and Tim would want to talk about how it affected them personally. But they did end up opening up a bit, particularly Matthew, about how the process had affected him and some of his personal relationships with his own family.
Had you seen them speak before you talked to them?
I had not seen them speak in person, but I’d seen a video of them doing a presentation. There had been some media done on them. When the story first came to light six or seven years ago, there were some news organizations that did some pieces. They were on Oprah and 20/20. I saw some of those and I know some of them left a bad taste in their mouths, so I was trying to assure them that we were taking a very different tack in making this film – not sensationalizing it, which is a very easy trap to fall into because it’s a very sensational story. A lot of it was just building a trust with them, and me getting them comfortable on camera to the point that they were able to open up about their feelings and emotions.
I was surprised to hear that they had decided to speak together at museums and schools before they were even comfortable with the idea, and before Matthew had come close to anything resembling forgiveness. There wasn’t a single, climactic moment of forgiveness. Tim even likens their speaking events to therapy, which is a drawn-out process. Personally, and as a storyteller, did this project change your ideas about the nature of forgiveness?
Yeah, a lot of people ask me if, after making the film, I was in Matthew’s position, would I be able to forgive Tim? And my answer is, plainly, I really don’t know. That was the purpose of making the film, to show that it’s really different for everyone and it might not be for everybody. It depends on your circumstances and background, and all the societal factors that can come into play. We weren’t trying to make a film to preach to people that forgiveness is the answer. We were trying to make a film for people to show them this story of forgiveness, to see how it relates to them and how it relates to them in their own life.
And I think even if someone decides it is the answer, the film is a good reminder that it’s not necessarily a specific, conscious decision but rather an evolution.
Right. Matthew and Tim still talk about it. Obviously they’re at a very good place now, but I’m sure there are days where they question it all. It’s a long process. It’s not just one day, “I forgive you, it’s done.” Like you said, they started doing these presentations probably earlier than they should have, and we wanted to explore why that was, and what really went into forgiving each other.
Have you heard from audience members how it’s challenged their own ideas about forgiveness?
The film was screened all over the country and in Europe. We’ve gotten great response across the board – whether that response was that they’re sympathetic and feel for them, or we’ve had some people that say, “I don’t buy it right now. But maybe a week or a month later it’ll be something I can consider more.” And that was our goal. We just want people to leave the theater thinking about it. If it can cause a discussion, then great.
What is the next step? Do you have other specific plans with this piece and this story?
The one thing we did know when we made the film is that it was going to have an educational element. So we’re planning to do distribution with the film and ideally have it broadcast on TV, but the big goal is education. Getting it out to schools and institutions and museums to spark a discussion about the topics raised in the film. I’ve been surrounded by love and forgiveness for two years now with this film! So that’s been great, and I’ve learned a lot about myself with people who are the exemplars of things that are happening out there.
Can you put into words what you think you learned about yourself?
If there’s a dispute or even a petty argument, I think I do look at that stuff differently now, based on the people I’ve seen and what I’ve seen them go through and how they’ve dealt with it. It just gives you pause even in small arguments with a family member or friend, or if I get upset with my kids. The film does have a big storyline about the relationship with Matthew and his mother. Matthew was thrown out of his home at the age of 13 for being gay. So as a parent, there’s stuff there that I look at. It hits home as far as understanding how some people have gone through tougher circumstances, and how some of us are fairly lucky with what we have.
What was your reaction when you found out you were nominated for an Academy Award?
Obviously, we are completely thrilled being nominated for an Oscar. It was nothing we’d ever considered when making the film. It was nowhere on our radar. But as a result, we’re so happy because we know this recognition is going to help us get the film out to a wider audience. So if it helps to that end, then fantastic, and we couldn’t be happier. We didn’t make this film to win an award, but we’ll take what comes along with it.
What is it like to do this kind of work in Berkeley? Has the city influenced your identity as a filmmaker and the creative decisions you’ve made?
Well, the Saul Zaentz Media Center in particular is this incredibly healthy, vibrant, creative environment for filmmakers and artists. You can bounce ideas off people literally in the hallways. You can call up anyone downstairs to ask a technical question. So having this resource here in Berkeley is amazing, to have all this here at our fingertips. It’s always been a strong resource particularly for the documentary community. And there’s obviously a long history of Oscar films here. We’re proud to be able to say we follow in the footsteps of those people.
The film is relevant in Berkeley too. Back in November, the Sasha Fleischman attack sort of hit a nerve. It was right in my backyard. Sasha’s father took a similar approach to what we took in the film — let’s not convict the perpetrator. Let’s look at all the societal factors. So for me, I want to take the film out as a teaching tool for high-school students, especially for these issues around homophobia. Even here, where we live, in the most liberal spot in the country, we had the same kind of attack. It still happens, and that’s why it’s still relevant.
We do hope to do some screenings here in Berkeley so the local community can see the work that’s been done here, and get it out to the schools here. That’s on our agenda.
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