Director Jason Cohen talks about Facing Fear, his Oscar-shortlisted documentary

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When Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal met at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, it felt as if they had met before. They had: 25 years earlier on the streets of Hollywood, when Boger -- who had been thrown out of his home for being gay -- was nearly beaten to death by Zaal and a group of neo-Nazi skinheads. But when their paths crossed again, it led to an unbelievable tale of forgiveness and friendship.

In his new short film, Facing Fear (which recently has been shortlisted for the Oscars), director Jason Cohen tells the story through Boger and Zaal, letting his subjects piece together what led to that horrific night, and reveal how they were each able to forgive themselves and each other.

Facing Fear will play as a companion to Truth Has Fallen at the Denver Film Festival this week. Before those screenings, we spoke with Cohen about the short, and how he became involved with the project.

See also: Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine director Michele Josue talks about her friend's legacy

Westword: How did you discover Tim and Matthew's story?

Jason Cohen: This project was actually made in conjunction with a non-profit called The Fetzer Institute. Fetzer does work around promoting awareness of love and forgiveness around the globe. They had done some work with Matthew and Tim at the Museum of Tolerance, and the presentation that they had been doing there. I'm working on a much bigger project with Fetzer, so they sort of introduced me to them. I looked at the story and thought it would make for a great film. I met with Matthew and Tim and was just more than convinced after digging a little deeper.

Their story is surprising, in that it even exists. I mean, facing a total stranger who almost beat you to death is courageous, but the fact that these two could become friends and be a support system for each other -- not to mention Matthew and Tim's chance meeting in the first place.

I think in making the film I was trying to be as objective as possible, and not try to slant toward either direction. In general, when you talk about forgiveness and stories of forgiveness, there's always going to be a slant toward the victim. It's just sort of how it goes. But we really wanted to make an effort to show that this was a two-way street for both of them through this process. Tim was going through as much as or more than what Matthew was going though in having to forgive Tim. So that was something we were very mindful of.

I think the other thing was, we really just wanted to present the story without saying, "This is the right answer" or "This is the wrong answer" or forgiveness is for everybody and you have to go this way if something were to happen to you. We wanted to present the story and then let the audience take it in and decide how it affects them and their own life -- whether it be a quarrel with a family member or a friend, up to something more drastic or horrific like what happened between these two.

The objectivity of the film was apparent -- it never feels at any point that the viewer is supposed to feel sorry for Tim. But showing where he was coming from was so key to understanding both people in this story.

Part of that was -- and the way we built the film was -- to show, essentially, that these men were from very similar backgrounds and similar environments, but ended up on these divergent paths and in each other's lives. The idea that this could happen to anybody -- you could end up down that wrong road and it may not be your own doing.

What also struck me about the film was the idea that, one day, we ourselves might do something in passing and not think of the fact that we might run into a person we may have hurt later in life. Like, cutting someone off in traffic or saying something rude to a stranger.

For me, in making the film and living with it for so long, it certainly caused me to reassess things in my life. Whether it be the smallest of disputes with a family member or getting angry with my kids -- the littlest thing. Though this film is on such a bigger level, it really did cause me to reassess, like you're saying. I mean, none of us are perfect and we all have our issues and our moments, but I guess, yeah, you really never know if that could come back. Plus, Tim and Matthew crossing paths in the Museum of Tolerance, of all places -- that was incredible.

The one interesting thing I will note about that is that they met at the Museum of Tolerance and the Museum of Tolerance is the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which was essentially a Holocaust museum. That was their focus for a long time -- but they do a lot more than that and talk about tolerance in general. Obviously, this story touched a nerve with them, but the one thing to note there is that Simon Wiesenthal was not a proponent of forgiveness with the Nazis.

Yet there, in this museum, the museum was willing to embrace these two and have them tell their story, again, as a sort of "look at what could happen." Not necessarily endorsing forgiveness as the answer to all -- particularly being housed in the Wiesenthal Center, knowing Wiesenthal wasn't supportive of forgiveness in his own situation.

Absolutely. Especially in a museum meant to share history and stories -- forgiveness seems like an additional, next-level component that wouldn't always come along with what's talked about in terms of tolerance.

I can tell you that the film is part of a much bigger project that we did with the Fetzer Institute. There's a feature film that is sort of the rest of the project -- it is four other stories from around the world about love and forgiveness. One of the forgiveness stories in the feature film is about post-war reconciliation in northern Uganda. So that is a situation where you have neighbors living with each other again after some really horrific acts during wartime -- including rape and murder. But it is about these people now taking the perpetrators back in to live with them because it was sort of the best way they could get through this situation.

That's a story from this larger project that sort of encompasses a lot more of these ideas that we couldn't get too into in just a short film. We pulled out Matthew and Tim's story because it just works by itself and has a lot of impact as a stand-alone piece.

The feature, Four Women, One World, will be out in the spring. It's a different film -- it is a little bit more about love, compassion and hope. It centers on four women doing humanitarian work around the world, infusing love, compassion and forgiveness into that work. It goes from India to Spain to Haiti to Afghanistan, and around the U.S. a little bit and Uganda.

Facing Fear plays in conjunction with Truth Has Fallen at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 13 and 7:15 p.m. Thursday, November 14 at the UA Pavilions. For more information, visit the Denver Film Festival website.

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