The idea to produce a documentary about forgiveness came to Emmy winner and Academy Award nominee Helen Whitney in the form of a generous financial benefactor, whom she said gave her free creative license. She initially balked.
“In truth, this was not a film I wanted to make, but it really found me,” she said while speaking at the University of Findlay on Feb. 28 as UF’s spring Woodrow Wilson Fellow. She had been in Salt Lake City, Utah, wrapping up an epic film about the Mormons, when she took a call from a man who described himself as an admirer of her work. The concept of forgiveness, she felt, was vast and conflicting.
“It’s a powerful word, an important one,” she maintained. “It comes with an aura of sentimentality, piousness, a new agey kind of truth. You’re generally considered a spiritual slacker if you can’t find forgiveness.” To add to its complexity, “There really is virtually no consensus about what forgiveness is,” Whitney found.
But as she delved deeper into the project, she identified compelling “big ideas” about the act that stoked her interest and taught her valuable lessons about herself. What resulted was a three-hour PBS series titled “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate,” which addresses the dichotomies and subjectivity of how people perceive the subject, and how they practice it.
“I did discover that forgiveness matters urgently to many people. I had never taken its measure theologically, metaphysically and historically. People came out of the woodwork wanting to talk about it. Everybody had a story,” she said.
Whitney’s travels for this film, released in 2011, took her all over the world, from hospice patients’ rooms in the U.S. to the living rooms of South Africans. The film, like the subject itself, is no easy work to experience. Issues ranging from genocide to murder are addressed. Trauma is a frequent thread. But also making appearances are redemption, repentance and peace. Differing religious beliefs about forgiveness are included as well.
The filmmaker noted that her financial backer was initially surprised at the product she produced; he had expected to see a more uplifting piece, perhaps featuring the Dalai Lama.
While introducing the film, the first half of which she screened in the Alumni Memorial Union, she mentioned notions of forgiveness by a friend, who is a Dominican priest – “Forgiveness is our hunger for connection and our terror of going into the night unconnected,” the priest explained to her. “It is that fundamental. It is a primordial ache. Religion arrived late on the scene.”
Whitney also contemplated the increasingly prevalent presence of forgiveness, and “its close cousins, reconciliation and apology,” in public life – for instance, male politicians who have been discovered as adulterers or frauds, and who stand at the podium offering apologies while their spouses stand by. “As we broaden our range of forgiveness, do we cheapen or deepen it?” she asked.
The maker of other documentaries ranging from the McCarthy era to mental illness said each of them has changed her. But aside from her film about mortality, “Forgiveness” has “cut the deepest,” she said. “It’s the one that I believe resonates at the most universal level.”
The film’s narrator opens the film by stating, “Forgiveness is elusive, mysterious. It is an idea, an ache. It is imbedded in all religious texts. Perhaps forgiveness is most acutely felt in our very last hours.”
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