044: Conversation on “Forgiveness”

    Filmmaker Martin Doblmeier is on the road again –- and this time he’s carrying a Big Idea with him that may be a key to world peace.
    Actually, this idea is as old as religion itself: Forgiveness.
    Here’s what’s new about it: Martin has found that, all around the world, writers, educators, social activists, clergy –- and even research scientists –- are dusting off this ancient religious concept and they’re using it in powerful new ways.
    In Northern Ireland, there’s a new campaign to read storybooks about forgiveness to schoolchildren. In American laboratories, researchers are documenting the overall health benefits of forgiving other people. In France, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk is bringing together enemies in unusual retreats that, often, prompt forgiveness.
    In rural Pennsylvania, one year ago, Amish families taught the whole world a lesson about forgiveness after a gunman slaughtered five children, then killed himself in an Amish schoolhouse.
    For more than a year, Martin and his film crews circled the globe documenting these stories. Then, they wove them all into a feature-length film that will leave you both inspired and full of questions about how you, too, can use these tools to make a difference in the world.
    Famous names in the film include Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, the famous New York City preacher the Rev. James Forbes and the Vietnamese peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.

     On December 2 at 7 p.m., Martin’s national tour of the film, called “The Power of Forgiveness,” is coming to a landmark church located not far from our Home Office in Michigan. Click on the advertisement on the right side of our Web page to read more about that event at historic Kirk in the Hills.
    Or CLICK HERE to jump to Martin’s own Web site where you’ll find details about all of his films and showings. (If you’re interested in his film, “Bonhoeffer,” click on the cover of the DVD below, which will show you our review of that earlier film –- and can buy a copy through our bookstore, if you wish.)

HERE’s what Martin says about this life-changing new film in a Conversation With me about “The Power of Forgiveness.”

DAVID: Martin, we’ve talked about some of your earlier documentaries over the years, including your terrific film on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. So, I know what you can do with film, but I just saw a preview of “Forgiveness” and — Wow! I think it’s your best, so far. This is a very ambitious film. You take us all over the world.
How long did this take you to complete?
MARTIN: We worked on it for about a year –- maybe 16 months overall. I decided to use a multi-story format. Then, as we planned the film, we started out with about 100 different story ideas we could have included. We had to decide which of those stories we should tell, out of that long list, and then we did a lot of research and we went out and put this whole film together.
DAVID: And, why “Forgiveness” now? You’ve made a lot of different films over the years. What sparked this particular idea as the focus for a film?

There’s something going on with forgiveness that I think is really interesting. I went to a conference a couple of years ago where people were presenting scientific research on the topic of forgiveness. Most of these people were in health-care fields and I began to realize that this whole universe of science and medicine was working on something that was very close to the universe of religion, which has been talking about forgiveness for centuries.
DAVID: At one point in the film, you take viewers right into a laboratory where a psychologist is examining how forgiveness changes people physically.
MARTIN: That’s Dr. Kathleen Lawler-Row, head of the Department of Psychology at East Carolina University. She’s been doing studies on patterns of forgiveness, what it takes to reach a point of forgiveness – and what effect forgiving someone has on a person.
To me, that’s very interesting stuff and she’s so articulate in the way she talks about this work. One of the things she finds is that, the older we get, the more open we are to forgiveness.
DAVID: That is fascinating to watch. And we hear from these people who are trying to forgive various offenses against them. But, another thing your film reminds us is that some wounds are incredibly raw. And, they remain raw for years, sometimes decades.
You take us to Northern Ireland. You talk about the Amish tragedy. You talk about who is ultimately responsible for the Holocaust. Are you concerned that people will find this movie too tough to watch?

MARTIN: We were concerned about that. We took the film to Virginia Tech in September –- or, we took it to the Lyric Theater in Blacksburg, Virginia, which is the local art-house theater near Virginia Tech.
DAVID: These are traumatized people. What feedback did you get?
MARTIN: They were very concerned that bringing the film in about the topic of forgiveness would provoke or open wounds that people were trying to heal –- but the exact opposite happened. It was a Sunday afternoon and it was a very calming experience that day.
The response was really positive. There were parents who had lost children at Virginia Tech during the shootings and they said: Thank you for coming. They were grateful.
People didn’t leave afterward. They stayed and waited and talked with me to tell me their stories about losing someone. They asked me to come back again.
People are ready for the ideas in this film.

DAVID: Why are they so open right now? It’s an ancient idea. It’s always been there in the spiritual toolbox. Why fresh interest right now?
MARTIN: I think people are looking at this in new ways.
You know, I have a background in religious studies. I could have quoted sacred texts about forgiveness throughout the film. We could have spent most of our time exploring those ideas, but that didn’t interest me as much as the new things we’re hearing like what’s happening in these classrooms with children.
DAVID: The scenes in Northern Ireland. Right. I think it’s wonderful that you highlight the importance of something as simple as a storybook in shaping people’s minds and spirits. What kind of stories seemed most popular to you?
MARTIN: Dr. Seuss is one of their favorites for teaching forgiveness. They use his books a lot.
DAVID: I was struck, though, that people do disagree in your film. There are actually contradictions in what people say, over time. Like Elie Wiesel (pictured above), who says at one point that it’s impossible to think about forgiveness for the Holocaust and yet you show how involved he was in campaigning for German acts of forgiveness.
To me, it showed that this whole idea of forgiveness as a tool in peacemaking is really an emerging idea. People are still sorting out what it means and how it can be used.

ARTIN: Yes, that’s right. I wanted to keep the contradictions and disagreements in the film, because I want to people to think about where they agree and disagree in what they’re seeing and what they’re hearing.
This is all emerging. And that’s one reason I was so interested in the Amish community, where forgiveness is such a natural part of their community and has been a part of their community for centuries.
DAVID: I wrote about that experience in the aftermath of the school shootings several times last year myself, because the Amish were just astonishing in their response to the tragedy. I thought there was an almost unbelievable lesson of reconciliation played out in the way they reacted.
MARTIN: It is hard for us to understand this. We have such a strongly justice-focused culture in this country and part of this is all wrapped up in our strident sense of individualism. We feel like we’re all alone and isolated –- and that’s why the Amish story was such an important part of the film for me.
I actually was coming down toward the end of the line in the making of the film when the tragedy in Nickel Mines happened and the Amish put the concept of forgiveness back into the headlines of every newspaper in the world.
We need to keep thinking about this. In most communities, we support each other in our anger much more than we ever consider supporting each other in our forgiveness. We find lots of company in our anger and we’re often alone in the pathways that lead to forgiveness.

DAVID: That’s why I thought Elie Wiesel was so important in the film, too. He understands the importance of what might almost be called communal rituals of forgiveness and reconciliation.
MARTIN: He understands the power of a symbolic gesture. Nothing will ever fully atone for the killing of 6 million Jews, but making a sincere symbolic gesture helps all of us, as humanity, to come to terms with something so terrible.
In our country, we haven’t done enough to create symbolic gestures that will help us all to deal with the legacy of slavery. And, as a result of that, there still are undercurrents of this wound in our country. The Jena Six experience speaks to the importance of addressing that wound.
DAVID: So, as you take this film into churches, among other places, you’re actually speaking to people who can make a difference, starting with this issue of structuring these important symbols that set the stage, right?
MARTIN: Yes, because all of us who work in this world of religion and spirituality already have bought into the power of symbolic gestures. We innately understand this power, whether it’s through rituals that we believe in or it’s through the symbolic nature of the language we use in religion.
When it comes to forgiveness, people ask me all the time: What can we do about this problem?
And I’m saying to many people: You already know the first thing to do.

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