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Forgiveness takes on new meaning in filmmaker’s work

Filmmaker Helen Whitney speaks to an audience at St. Catherine University on the subject of forgiveness on Thursday.
Filmmaker Helen Whitney speaks to an audience at St. Catherine University on the subject of forgiveness on Thursday.
Melissa Kaelin

The power of forgiveness became the subject of debate on Thursday, when nationally acclaimed filmmaker Helen Whitney stepped into the Rauenhorst Ballroom to present her new PBS documentary.

“Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate” will air nationally April 19–20, but students, faculty and staff who attended Whitney’s presentation on the St. Catherine University campus had an opportunity to view clips from the film and hear from the filmmaker herself on the inner-workings of the documentary.

Bill McDonough, program director for theology at St. Catherine University, introduced the filmmaker, saying in his department Whitney’s films have already made a considerable impact.

“For us in the theology department, there is no more appreciated film and no more used film than her 2002 PBS Film ‘Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero – Where was God on September 11?’” he said.

When Whitney took the podium, she described how the concept for the new documentary came to her. After writing and producing the film, “The Mormons,” in 2007, she said she was looking to embark on something smaller – a film that would give her time to recuperate before her next large project.

“It wasn’t a film I wanted to make, initially,” said Whitney. “Committing to a film is like committing to a relationship. It can take years to make. No filmmaker enters into this lightly when they choose their subject.”

When Whitney received a phone call inquiring about the project and offering full funding, she said she quickly changed her mind. Because her films explore topics on a spiritual landscape, the subject, though complex, was a perfect fit.

Whitney said the film took on an “infinite” scope, both intellectually and geographically.

In the documentary, she covered everything from the Amish families whose children were shot by a lone gunman in Nickel Mines, Pa., in 2006, and the struggles coming out of violent protests of the 1960s, to the penitential journey of the entire nation of Germany, in confronting the horrors of the Holocaust.

“First, I found it surprising that there is no consensus about what forgiveness is,” Whitney said on Thursday.

In her work, Whitney examined the difference of unconditional forgiveness and conditional forgiveness. She called “forgiveness” a personal idea, but also described it as “elusive” and “mysterious.”

For those who attended the dialogue, the personal quandary of whether an offender should be forgiven took a central role in the debate.

Whitney shared the part of her film where Kathy Power, a protestor who spoke out against the Vietnam War, was imprisoned for the 1970 killing of Boston police officer Walter Schroeder. Power evaded arrest after the killing and spent decades as a fugitive before she turned herself in. Power served her full sentence, withdrawing a request for release after she came face to face with Schroeder’s daughter.

The film featured interviews with both women, revealing Power’s deep desire for atonement and forgiveness after growing up in a Catholic family, and revealing Clare Schroeder’s refusal to forgive a person indicated in her father’s death.

Whitney said she could relate to both women, as Power sought to be freed from one sole misstep in her life, and as Schroeder, a police officer herself, would forever be tortured by her father’s violent death.

“I never really looked at forgiveness in a disciplined, focused way, more an impressionistic way,” said Whitney. “It very quickly became clear to me that forgiveness is urgent and personal – and sometimes dangerous, once in a while – and it matters. This topic mattered more to people – matters more to people – than anything else I’ve chosen in the last 35 years.”

Whitney said forgiveness is also playing a role in settings where it has never been seen before, historically speaking.

“There really is a new kind of forgiveness out there,” said Whitney. “There is this new forgiveness that’s no longer confined within religion, religious structures, that – it sort of left the confessional, left the pulpit, hit the streets. It’s changing.”

In her film, Whitney examined the role media plays in forgiveness, as TV shows often bring in friends or family members who are in conflict with each other then invite these people to forgive each other in the national spotlight.

“It’s also migrated into the political realm,” said Whitney. She said in the last 34 years, forgiveness and apologies have moved into the heart of truth commissions and other organizations. “It’s driving the language of apology – corporations apologizing, nations apologizing, churches apologizing – and this never happened before. When is the last time, when you’re looking through history, that any nation ever bends its knee to those people it has harassed or harmed?”

Whitney gave examples of forgiveness happening in Australia, as the nation apologized to the aborigines, and of forgiveness happening in the Truth and Reconciliation hearings that are being held in South Africa.

“Something new under the sun really is happening,” said Whitney. “There seems to be this recognition that a nation cannot heal itself unless it looks in the dark corners of its past, and at least acknowledges them. That was something that was very exciting – the timeliness of this film.”

Feb. 4, 2011 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Catholic Identity, Social Justice, Students