A powerful gay-themed film, Facing Fear, has been nominated for an Oscar in the Documentary Short Subject category. Written and directed by Bay Area resident Jason Cohen, the film artfully chronicles the intersecting lives of Tim Zaal and Matthew Boger, two very different men who come from not dissimilar suburban California backgrounds.
Tim is a Neo-Nazi who developed a taste for violence with his skinhead friends, while Matthew is a queer teenager who has been living on the streets in L.A. after his religious mother kicked him out of her house. One night, Tim and his friends beat Matthew badly, leaving him for dead. Yet Matthew survived, and 26 years later, the two men meet again. Tim, now a former Neo-Nazi, has come to speak at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Matthew is a manager at the museum.
Cohen, who is straight and Jewish, did not identify with either Tim or Matthew, and his objective perspective gives Facing Fear its strength. The film would have been different if an LGBT filmmaker, who might have created a bias towards the subjects, had made it. As it is, this documentary short is a deeply personal, highly provocative, and extremely inspiring film.
The director explained his purpose and approach to telling the story of Facing Fear in a recent Skype interview with me: “I wanted to explore the idea and process of forgiveness,” he said. “Forgiveness is not a cut and dry issue. I wanted to show that their personal experiences and societal factors were part of the process as they came back into each other’s lives.”
He continued, “I wanted to examine how heroic these gentlemen are, going through their whole lives and coming out where they are now. I don’t think there is closure in Matt or Tim’s life. They have said that the process of forgiveness never ends, even though they are comfortable with each other.”
Facing Fear is also notable for how it is constructed. Cohen wisely eschews using a narrator, letting each man alternate telling his story before their unexpected reunion. As such, viewers clearly understand why Tim became involved with the skinheads, and how Matthew, who was bullied in school, ended up eking out a life on the streets.
Cohen observed, “Tim and Matthew’s lives went in divergent paths, and we wanted them to have a conversation—playing them off each other. They are two trains on a collision course, and then we see the aftermath.”
As such, the film addresses issues of class, race, education, religion, and sexuality, as well as themes of guilt, shame, and bullying. Tim’s attack on Matthew, Cohen explained, “took place in the 1980s, when there was no such thing as a ‘hate crime.’ It was a gay bashing. Today if it had happened, it would have been looked at differently.”
Facing Fear includes a reference to Matthew Shepard, another victim of a hate crime, to provide other examples of gay bullying and bashing. The filmmaker acknowledged, “I wanted to explore what has been going on with bullying and bring it to the forefront.”
Cohen mentions a recent incident in the Bay Area, in which an asexual high school student, Luke “Sasha” Fleischman, had their skirt set on fire on a city bus. “That really hit home for me,” the filmmaker said.
Facing Fear can educate students about bullying and hate. The documentary is expected to show at schools, universities, museums and institutions where there can be dialogues about promoting love and forgiveness.
Perhaps the most chilling moment in the documentary is in the museum when Tim admits to Matthew that he knows who he is before Matthew realizes their shared history. One of the most poignant moments has Matthew stating that forgiving Tim was the only way he could get past the incident from his youth.
“Making the film, I had to think about how I would react in that situation, and I really don’t know,” Cohen admitted candidly. “I don’t know that I could forgive. The only way to know is to be [Matthew] and go through his experiences. Matthew has said throughout this—forgive but never forget. What happened is part of who he is and it shaped him. It’s an awful circumstance, but it’s his life’s fabric. He has used it to his advantage.”
Cohen is happy that his film has generated such conversation topics, and that it has been nominated for an Oscar. The nomination will expose the film to a wide audience. “It’s a huge boost, and hopefully, it will continue to blossom from there,” he stated optimistically.
As for winning the gold statute, “We’ll see what happens,” Cohen said cautiously, as if not to jinx anything.
© 2014 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.