Monday, March 14, 2011

Helen Whitney's Forgiveness (Rhoades)

TSKW Filmmaker Helen Whitney
Offers Her “Forgiveness”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

When Helen Whitney came down to Key West to visit her friend Margarite Whitney (not a relative), she had no idea she’d wind up showing a series of her documentary films here. One morning she was on her way to get coffee at 5 Brothers when out of curiosity she stopped off at The Studios of Key West. That conversation led to a stint as a filmmaker in residence at TSKW.

Whitney’s latest documentary – showing in two parts on March 18 and 20 at the Tropic Cinema – is titled “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate.”

Other documentaries by Helen Whitney will be shown the following week.

Why make a film about forgiveness? “I was asked to do it by a stranger,” Whitney tells the story. A wealthy investor named Paul Dietrich approached her after seeing her work. “It’s a subject that has preoccupied him for decades,” she says. “Paul is a spiritual seeker with an emotionally rich layered life.”

But she wasn’t sure she wanted to do it. “The subject comes with an aura of sentimentality, New Age piety, this big rosy Valentine. I was yearning for something small and narrowly focused. The subject of forgiveness is one of vastness. There are no boundaries.”

Yet it was “hard to turn down a fully funded film,” she admits.

“The decision to do it didn’t come like Saul on the road to Damascus. Before making up my mind I spent about three months talking to people about the subject. Strangers, acquaintances. 
People would come up to me at cocktail parties and say, ‘I have this friend …’ Often they were talking about themselves.”

Finally she gave in.

“Forgiveness is elusive,” says the film’s prologue. True to its statement, this documentary doesn’t offer any Cliff’s Notes short answers. Instead, it shares many instances that involve the act of forgiveness, allowing you to come to your own conclusions.

“While it was once a uniquely religious word, forgiveness now is changing,” we’re told. “And there is no consensus about what it is and what it’s becoming.”

“It’s a complicated subject,” says Whitney. “Jews and Christians have very different ideas about what forgiveness is.”

Even so, the people profiled in her two films seem to agree that the act of forgiving is a “profound transaction.” The need for atonement is described as “an ache in the human heart that has endured.”

To explore the subject, Helen Whitney’s cameras take us from the killing fields of Rwanda to a courtroom in Oregon.

We sit in the courtroom with an impassive serial killer who shows no remorse … until one of his victims’ relatives forgives him.

We visit a hospice where an elderly man named Merle Long refuses to die until he finds God’s forgiveness for killing an unarmed German soldier during World War II. “A spiritual ache, not to go into the night unreconciled,” Whitney describes it.

Forgiveness can be powerful and it can be dangerous. We encounter violence when a South African security official seeks forgiveness from a black family for his crimes of apartheid.

We hear Don Robeson who has lost 30 years to gnawing anger over being fired from a hospital position. “I can forgive, but I can’t forget,” he says.

Atonement is existential. You’ll meet Katherine Power, the police-killer who when being considered for parole offers to remain in prison in hopes his family will accept her remorse as genuine.

You’ll meet characters with an undercurrent of doubt, “straight off the pages of a Graham Green novel.”

The documentary points out that Muslims pray five times a day asking for forgiveness. The Day of Atonement is an important Jewish holiday. Christ asked God to forgive those who crucified him. The Amish believe in unconditional forgiveness.

To better understand the Amish view, the film examines the schoolhouse shooting in Nickel Mines, PA. A milk truck driver who lived in the community invaded a small school and shot a number of female students. Yet the five families who lost children extended their forgiveness to the killer, as did the entire Amish community, and invited his widow into their homes. “Their view of forgiveness is unconditional, a duty to God.”

Not everyone agrees. “Some acts are unforgivable,” says Terri Jentz, who was attacked by a young man with an ax while camping in Redmond, Oregon. Unable to get over this near-death experience, she returned years later to the town to find the man who attacked her. Even though the statute of limitations had expired, she located the “good-looking young cowboy” who had tried to mutilate her and a girlfriend and helped bring him to justice on a different criminal charge. “She was able to forgive the town, but not the man,” says Whitney.

The films also explore “intimate woundings of the soul.” When his wife moved away and left the children behind, a devastated husband says, “Forgiveness became a central question in my life.” The divorce affected each of them profoundly. We see it from both sides, how she’d found the responsibility overwhelming, suffered panic attacks, before going on to get her Ph.D. And how he felt abandoned and betrayed until he found “a path to forgiveness.”

The subject is even larger, with the second part examining the public apologies of nations like Poland and Japan and Germany for damages they had caused during World War II. The politics of apologies, acknowledgements, and forgiveness.

Why does Helen Whitney pursue these answers? “Forgiveness matters,” she says. “This is an era of forgiveness and apology.”

Whitney turned away from a life in academia to become a filmmaker. Setting aside her Masters Degree in Victorian Literature, she went on the road as a researcher for legendary television executive Fred Freed. He created among other shows, “The White Paper Series.” She took a job with NBC News, and that led to making documentaries. Her subjects have ranged from street gangs to life in a monastery to photographer Richard Avedon. “But I have always been attracted by spiritual films,” she confesses.

Helen Whitney will be on hand for a reception at 5 p.m. prior to the Friday showing of
“Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate” at the Tropic Cinema. But don’t expect her to forgive you if you don’t come.
[from Solares Hill]

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