Judge William Lee wants to be cleansed but not for any particular sins. He just needs a shower.
"While it was once a uniquely religious word, forgiveness now is changing and there is no consensus on what it is and what it is becoming."
The eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope wrote, "To err is human; to forgive is divine." Does the act of forgiveness bring us closer to God? Have you ever paused to consider, why do we want to be the givers or recipients of forgiveness? I can't think of any wild animal that exhibits this behavior so forgiveness must be unique to the human condition. Perhaps it's a biological imperative? Maybe it's a product of our social conditioning? I don't know. The PBS documentary Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate has no simple answers to provide either but it made me think about it in a way I never have before.
The program is divided into two parts of about 85 minutes each. Act one examines cases where individuals are touched by tragedy, haunted by secrets and tested by evil. In each of these cases we hear from people who have experienced forgiveness or even just witnessed it. The 2006 shooting of Amish schoolchildren in Pennsylvania is recounted and we hear about how the community forgave the killer because that is what God would want them to do. A husband shares the experience of when his wife suddenly walked out on their family. Subsequently, he learns to forgive her and she must learn to forgive herself. In a case where the idea of forgiveness seems unthinkable, a woman tells her story of being brutally attacked in the Oregon woods and how her attacker evaded justice. As these stories illustrate, it is sobering how much hurt some people experience. In each instance we hear about the emotional trauma the survivors and the families of victims live with. For some, forgiving those that have wronged them is a turning point in their lives. For others, asking for forgiveness makes all the difference. For others still, forgiveness is not an option and the film doesn't shy away from considering one's hate as a legitimate, even proper, response. What if forgiveness isn't earned or isn't genuine?
In act two, the film looks at forgiveness in the political realm. Some of the situations examined are the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa following the end of apartheid and the gacaca restorative justice village courts in Rwanda that tried to resolve the aftermath of that country's 1994 genocide. In each case, there are things about the ritualized proceedings that work and things that do not. The case of Germany receives special attention as that country has dedicated considerable resources to remembering and confronting its shameful past. The film also recalls the controversial decision by President Ronald Reagan to visit a Germany cemetery where S.S. officers and other Nazis were laid to rest.
"Forgiveness is elusive, mysterious, primal…an idea and an ache, which is rooted in existential concerns. But too often forgiveness is presented as a simplistic valentine celebrating New Age pieties: exhorting us to forgive and criticizing those who cannot as spiritual underachievers," says writer-director Helen Whitney in press notes on her website. "My intention is to complicate this vitally important subject. The film is meant to raise questions, not provide answers."
Helen Whitney (The Mormons) is comfortable tackling this big idea from many sides. She acknowledges the practice of forgiveness in religious teachings but sees there is something deeper that touches us universally regardless of what church we attend. Her interview subjects reveal themselves so intimately that it is riveting to hear them tell their stories. You know instinctively that these people have truly been affected by the power of forgiveness. When it comes to the politics of forgiving, Whitney's research is exemplary. The cases she highlights are understood for their historical context and the witnesses and commentators she talks to offer good insight. Most importantly, Whitney doesn't present forgiveness as a magic bullet to patch things up between people. The film spends time questioning when forgiveness is the proper response and asks if being too quick to forgive is a mistake. Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate is a thoughtful and moving documentary on a concept that is harder to pin down than you might think. Whitney's film will enlighte you and maybe will make you a kinder, gentler person.
The video is decent on this DVD with image quality that is standard for television documentaries. The studio interviews, all filmed in front of a similar backdrop, are well lit with soft shadows. The archival video footage and still photographs that make up many segments vary in quality. Some footage that originates in a square format is stretched horizontally to fill the anamorphic 16:9 aspect ratio so some parts look just like those incorrectly set demo screens in the mall electronics store. Nevertheless, the picture is clean and reasonably sharp. The stereo audio is good with clearly heard interviews. Some of the music cues are a bit too obvious—"Adagio for Strings" during a segment on the Vietnam War, for example—but they set the right mood without being too forceful.
The 25 minutes of bonus footage consists of two interviews not used in the final program. The director's biography is included over a few text screens.
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