Interview on Forgiveness with filmmaker Helen Whitney

From Dalai Lama to Desmond Tutu, from Amish to Rwanda, Peace Takes Forgiveness

Forgiveness is on everyone’s lips today—but remains unfinished business in most of our hearts. From 12-Steppers seeking to reconcile their lives to Truth Commissions around the world, we’ve learned that personal and world peace requires forgiveness. Now that medical professionals are telling us that forgiveness could prolong our lives—we all understand that we need to do it.

But how? That’s what award-winning filmmaker Helen Whitney explored around the world for both a documentary film and a new book of personal stories that is perfect for sparking small-group discussion.
THE BOOK is Forgiveness: A Time To Love & A Time To Hate, which you can order from Amazon via this link or by clicking on the cover at right.
THE FILM version of Forgiveness on DVD also is available on Amazon.

The Dalai Lama writes in the Foreword to this new book: “Forgiveness is difficult and complex. It can involve issues of justice and reparations and of course deep seated anger and the wish for revenge. Forgiveness is not a question of forgetting the wrong done; if you’ve forgotten what was done, there is nothing to forgive. Forgiveness involves refusing to allow yourself to give in to anger and the desire for revenge. This is why forgiveness ultimately brings peace.”


DAVID: First, tell us about yourself. In your new book, you write that as a journalist, “The spiritual landscape is my beat; I had put down my flag on this territory 30 years ago when I produced my first and still favorite film for ABC about life in a Trappist monastery.” Over the years, millions of Americans have enjoyed your work on television—but we don’t know much about you.

HELEN: I was born in upper Manhattan. Now, I live in the West Village of Greenwich Village. I got my BA from Sarah Lawrence and my masters’ from the University of Chicago, where I studied Victorian literature.

DAVID: How about your own religious affiliation?

HELEN: I’m an agnostic. I go to church and I also go to study groups at times. I am fascinated by life’s big existential questions. Remember, I spent time in a monastery for that early film for ABC and I saw those men grappling with life’s deep questions. How does one believe? Why are we here? How should we live? These are the questions that interest me. I can’t say that I’ve found the answers. My films are my oddly secular pilgrimage that enables me to ask these questions in various ways through many lives and stories I have encountered around the world.

DAVID: What kind of church do you attend?

HELEN: For a long period of time, I went to a Presbyterian church because the minister there gave the most extraordinary sermons! I am Protestant to the core. I am nourished by the word more than the rituals. So, I go where I can find a good sermon.

DAVID: The Forgiveness project is a milestone in your career. We’re talking in the summer of 2011 with the tenth anniversary of “9/11” looming. I think the Forgiveness film and book can be very helpful for small groups all across America.

HELEN: I must have screened Forgiveness 30 times for different groups of people over the last two or three years. Here’s what happens: People want to stay in their seats afterward, raise questions and talk about their own experiences. I’ve seen this over and over again.

Violence, Nuremberg, Progress and a Hope for Peace

DAVID: You’ve explored a vast sweep of the world’s religious and moral experience in your films. You created that epic documentary film about the Mormons that millions watched on PBS not too long ago. You made a great film about the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II. In the whole sweep of what you’ve seen, do you think we are making any progress in the world? Or is the world a more dreadful place than it once was?

HELEN: One thing that changed in our history was Nuremberg. The world looked at the face of evil and judged it. We held people accountable, however imperfectly our justice might have been at the time. Then, we began to acknowledge that it is not enough simply to judge. We’ve got to go on living. Think about the numbers of truth and reconciliation commissions that have formed. This all is positive.

Now, countries know that they may have to bend their knees sometimes and express contrition and make reparations. Look at the extraordinary penitential journey of modern Germany. Look at South Africa after Apartheid. It’s true that not all of the dreams of forgiveness and reconciliation have taken hold. But, by and large, people are realizing that we have to go on living. And, now, to go on living, entire nations may have to bend their knees. Overall, the South African truth and reconciliation commission with Desmond Tutu was extraordinary.

Then, look at the apology in 2007 that I think has become the gold standard for all national apologies: That’s when Australia—the entire country—assembled either in person or around televisions for this incredible public apology to the indigenous people of their country. We were witnessing something new under the sun. This was a gradual, authentic, nationwide movement that started among the people who kept pressure on politicians until the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd within just a few weeks of taking the reins of power made sure the whole thing happened. We saw an entire awakened population, textbooks were changed, people planned regional actions—the population was ready for this.

I’m not saying that human nature is changing around the world, but there is a new understanding in the world that a country can’t move ahead without acknowledging the darkness in its past. Follow worldwide news in any given week, and you’ll see stories about bones from past atrocities somewhere in the world being unearthed and acknowledged. Something new is happening here.

DAVID: As I talk with readers about forgiveness and reconciliation, the two touchstones I often talk about are the Amish and that years-long Australian process that actually continues to this day. But not all examples are that powerful, right?

HELEN: Apologies range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some are insincere.

DAVID: To borrow your word, one the most sublime happened when I was still in high school. It was 1970, only 25 years after the end of World War II, and German Chancellor Willy Brandt visited the Warsaw Ghetto memorial. He was so moved that he sank to his knees in respect. He knelt and stayed there in silence for some moments.

HELEN: The footage of that is moving. That one act was so authentic that it began to turn the tide of opinion. People began saying: Maybe Germany is beginning to say they are sorry for what happened. It was a rare, sincere, wordless gesture. That ranks among the gold standards.

DAVID: I would say that your films also have become landmarks, reminding us of the urgency of these questions we all share—and the importance of struggling toward forgiveness and reconciliation. What is your hope for the legacy of these films—and the new book?

HELEN: Both Ground Zero and Forgiveness raise the big existential questions: Why are we here? What are we supposed to do in this life? What do I do when rage rises in me? Where does forgiveness come from? Obviously, the 9/11 film deals more with questions of rage, anger and the evil we face. The Forgiveness project deals with a different range of horrific acts on a personal and international level—and what people did about it afterward.

But here is my hope in both cases: Plan to talk about this with friends. Then, you’ll emerge saying: Wow, this is much more complex than I realized! Yet, in forgiveness, there’s something powerful that I can do to make a difference.

Care to read more about Forgiveness & Helen Whitney?

VISIT HER WEBSITE: Filmmaker and author Helen Whitney has lots of information on her website.

READ MORE ABOUT THE AMISH: The Amish are models of forgiveness and reconciliation. Helen includes them in her film and book. In July 2011, after yet another tragedy involving Amish deaths, we published this overview of ReadTheSpirit Amish resources.


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