Documentary director, subjects explore forgiveness through film

UW alumnus Jason Cohen speaks to "Facing Fear" screening attendees at UW Hillel Tuesday.

Image By: Will Chizek

Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal worked together for eight months before realizing they had drastically changed each other’s lives 26 years earlier.

Boger and Zaal, subjects of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Facing Fear,” visited campus Tuesday alongside UW-Madison alumnus and director Jason Cohen to screen and discuss the film’s themes of hatred and forgiveness with students and community members.

As detailed by the documentary, Boger’s mother kicked him out of his home for being gay at age 13, forcing him to live on the streets of Hollywood. There, Zaal and a group of neo-Nazis attacked Boger, beating him nearly to death.

Zaal’s boot, with razor blades glued to the toe, delivered the kick to Boger’s head that knocked him unconscious and made the group believe he was dead.

However, “Facing Fear” is not a film about violence. Zaal and Boger said they trusted Cohen to tell their story because he, unlike some other journalists, did not want to sensationalize the attack, instead focusing on their unlikely companionship.

“The point of the film was to show the process of forgiveness,” Cohen said.

Zaal explained Tuesday that, at the time, he used violence like a drug, needing to commit more aggressive hate crimes to experience a high.

Eventually, the effects wore off and Zaal, realizing the horror of his crimes, decided to leave the white supremacist movement.

Serendipitously, victim and offender met again decades later when both worked at the Museum of Tolerance. Before the duo could collaborate, however, they needed forgiveness.

“I don’t know if I could forgive someone the way he has been able to,” Zaal said.

For Boger, the process of reconciliation helped him face judgment without letting it affect him.

“I used to live my life worrying about what others thought of me, mainly my sexuality,” Boger said. “I was limiting my life by other people’s thoughts.”

Boger said after letting go of that fear, he found a new “driving force” in volunteering at the museum and spreading messages about tolerance and forgiveness.

The trio is working to bring the film to middle and high schools, where they hope it can teach students about conflict resolution and change behavioral education.

“People who have lived through something have the unique opportunity, ability and responsibility to share that with others, especially if it helps create change,” Boger said.

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