GLAAD speaks with Oscar nominated director Jason Cohen about 'Facing Fear'

The story of Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal has been told many times before in articles and television shows, which is a testament to its lasting appeal and impact.  When he was 13 years old, Boger was thrown out of his house for being gay and forced to survive homeless on the streets of Hollywood.  During that time Boger was savagely beaten by a group of Neo-Nazi Skinheads, which led him to one day take a position at the Museum of Tolerance.  It was there that Boger happened to meet Zaal; one of the teens who had beaten him so many years before, and who was now working for an anti-hate taskforce. 

Now director Jason Cohen has created Facing Fear, one of the most intimate looks yet at the story of these two men, and how their past led to them working together to teach others about the dangers of bigotry and embracing forgiveness.  This film was also recently nominated for an Academy Award in Documentary Short Subject.  Cohen spoke with GLAAD about what he learned from making the film and how he hopes to use it to inspire positive change on a wider scale.  Watch the trailer below.

How did you first get involved with Facing Fear, and what drew you to the story?

I was introduced to Matthew & Tim by the Fetzer Institute who I was doing a bigger project for. Fetzer does work to promote awareness of love and forgiveness around the globe and they were doing some outreach with the Hate to Hope presentation at the Museum of Tolerance. When they presented the story to me I knew it would make for a compelling film. The attack took place almost 35 years ago when the term "hate crime" didn't even exist, but so many of the themes around hate and bullying that come up in their story are still so relevant today. We also wanted to really explore the process of forgiveness that both men had to struggle through for the past 7 years since they came back into each other's lives.

How did it feel to learn that your film had been nominated for an Oscar in Best Documentary short?

We were thrilled when we found out about the nomination. It is an incredible honor but moreover we know that the recognition will enable us to get the film to a much wider audience than we could have ever imagined and that's all we could ever ask for.

Tim and Matthew's story has been addressed in TV shows and articles before, and the two of them even make presentations at schools.  What do you think is unique about the documentary film format in reaching an audience and telling a story like Tim and Matthew's?

Matthew & Tim had done a fair share of news media and confided in me that some of the pieces left a bad taste in their mouths. The story is a sensational one and it is easy to go down the road of sensationalizing the attack and the relationship, especially in a shorter news format. In addition, when they did most of the past media they weren't too far along in this process of forgiveness and probably weren't ready to really talk about that aspect of their journey. Our goal was to handle the attack and events around it subtly while also examining more deeply the journey of forgiveness including all the challenges, emotions and doubts they endured.

Did getting to know Tim and Matthew and their story change any of your own views on forgiveness or friendship?

Being immersed in this film for almost 2 years certainly has had an effect on me. It's impossible not think how Matthew & Tim's story relates to relationships in my own life. I look differently at small disputes with family members or friends even though it may be significantly less severe circumstances. It really forces you to examine how you handle conflict and moreover how I might have reacted if I was in Matthew's or Tim's shoes. I honestly don't know if I could forgive someone who had almost beaten me to death because I've learned through all this that it is such an individual journey and experience. It is all determined by everything in your own history and all the societal factors that may have played into your own psyche to deal with it. 

What do you hope audiences will take away from watching Facing Fear?

I hope audiences watch the film objectively and then see how the story may affect them in their own lives and relationships. We are not preaching forgiveness as the answer for everyone because we know it may not be. We just wanted to present this story and let the audience connect with it personally. Whether it's the hate, homophobia, bullying or forgiveness that strikes a chord with each audience member, we hope it opens a discussion when they leave the theater.

Looking beyond the Oscars, where would like ideally like to see Facing Fear go in terms of distribution and impact?

We are working on distribution for the film now and we hope to have a broadcast for it followed by VOD and digital download but our goal when we made the film was always to have a big educational push with it. We have already done some school screenings at high schools and students have really responded to it, leading to vibrant discussions that last longer than the film itself. We plan to establish a study guide to go along with the film and get it out to schools, universities, museums and institutions around the globe.

The Oscar shorts are currently screening around the country, and you can go here to find a theater showing them near you.