Every year around Oscar season, film buffs scramble to see as many of the nominated movies as possible. In Los Angeles, in particular, the awards season often becomes a daunting time of screener-swapping, viewing parties and quizzing each other on what one has and hasn’t seen. While nominated films such as “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” all received wide releases, and even lesser-known fare such as “Philomena” and “Dallas Buyers Club” has screened in many markets, one set of nominees is often practically impossible to see. Documentary shorts are rarely shown in commercial theaters, except for a rare screening in New York or Los Angeles that bundles a group of them together. It’s safe to say that come Oscar night, few people watching at home have viewed the nominees, which is a shame, because documentaries such as “Facing Fear,” one of the films to earn a nod this year in the Documentary Shorts category, are often among the most moving and thought-provoking offerings of the year.
“Facing Fear” tells the story of Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal, perhaps the world’s most unlikely pair of friends. Unlikely because 30 years ago, when Boger was a young gay man living on the streets of Los Angeles, Zaal was part of a mob of skinheads who nearly beat him to death one night while raining homophobic slurs upon him. The story of how these two men reunited, and how, against all odds, Boger came to forgive his attacker, forms the backbone of “Facing Fear.”
For director Jason Cohen, the choice to film “Facing Fear” was an easy one. He’d been working on a larger project for the Fetzer Institute, an organization that promotes the power of love and forgiveness, when someone told him about Boger and Zaal. “When they told me about Matthew and Tim’s story, I was drawn to it,” Cohen said recently by phone. “What drew me in was that it was a dramatic story, and it was a complex story.”
Cohen admits that, at first, he didn’t know quite what to make of the friendship. “I was hoping to come in and learn ... I wanted to learn more about forgiveness. I couldn’t relate to either one of them,” he said. “What I did know was that these gentleman were going through a pretty spectacular — I don’t know if spectacular is the right word — extraordinary relationship.”
Cohen and his crew filmed Boger and Zaal during the course of several months, in between working on other documentaries for the Fetzer Institute that took him as far away as India and Haiti. “We really wanted to examine this last six or seven years, when they were going through this process of forgiveness,” Cohen said of his subjects, who’d reunited half a decade before he’d heard about their story.
The filming was done in and around Los Angeles in locations that will be familiar to locals. An opening shot sees Boger sitting outside the Neveux Artisan Creamery on Melrose Avenue, and he’s later seen working at his job at the Museum of Tolerance on Pico Boulevard, where Zaal meets with him to give talks to museum visitors about forgiveness and ending hate.
Cohen says the title of the documentary means several things to him. “The obvious thing is the fear of meeting the scary neo-Nazi who beat you, and I think that probably is the first thing that people think of when you hear “Facing Fear,” but for us, it was this process of forgiveness which ended up being the thing that both of them were fearful of, victim and perpetrator.”
Though Zaal has long renounced his hateful ways, he struggles with the burden of his past, mentally and physically. Hit by a car as a child, a degenerative hip condition has left him limping and reliant on a cane. “Forgiveness is not necessarily just about the victim forgiving the perpetrator,” Cohen said, it’s also about “facing fear of coming to terms with things that you had buried away for years.”
When asked whether any of Zaal’s accomplices in the beating of Boger have come forward, especially after all the press coverage, Cohen said they had not. “He [Zaal] didn’t keep in touch with any of them after he got out of the movement,” Cohen said. Though Zaal did know that “at least one of them was in jail; one of them had died.”
It quickly became clear to Cohen, after premiering the film at Outfest in July 2013, that he might have something special on his hands. “The film really resonated, and we got amazing reaction from people there. I think we knew from then that we had something. That people were connecting to it, and wanted to discuss it.”
As for how he found out about his Oscar nomination, there was no special golden envelope, or phone call from the academy. “I basically found out like everyone else, refreshing the browser on my computer at 5:30 in the morning,” Cohen said, laughing.
He said he hasn’t had time to really soak in the moment yet, either. “To be perfectly honest, I’m so busy with everything else up until then [the awards ceremony], that I don’t even have time to really think about it,” Cohen said. He’s booked doing screenings, press and other jobs right up to the March 2 Oscars night.
But Cohen knows the film has left a profound impression on him. “I would go home every day, and if I had a dispute with a family member or a friend, it’s something I would think about,” he said.
“It caused me to think about my life compared to what these men have been through. To me, they’re heroes. To have gone through what each of them have gone through and just to get out of bed every day ... I think the word ‘hero’ gets thrown around a lot these days, and to me, these guys are truly heroes.”
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