BERKELEY -- Could you forgive someone who disagrees with your sexual orientation so vehemently that he straps razor blades to his boots, kicks you in the head and leaves you for dead?
That's the heavy question pondered in a 23-minute documentary by a Berkeley filmmaker up for an Academy Award on Sunday night.
"I don't know if I could forgive someone the way he has been able to forgive me," says former neo-Nazi skinhead Tim Zaal, 48, in the opening line of "Facing Fear."
"I knew the only way I was going to get past it was to forgive him," says his victim, and now friend, Matthew Boger. "And that is a huge undertaking."
The story retells the horrific beating of Boger by Zaal and 13 of his jackbooted buddies in the late 1980s and proceeds through 25 years of guilt and anger experienced by both of them, followed by a chance meeting between tormentor and victim in the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, of all places. It gives it an almost too-good-to-be-true feeling. But true it is, and that's what's so amazing about the story, you can't make stuff like this up.
Berkeley resident Jason Cohen, 42, is contending for an Oscar in the Documentary Short Subject category, along with his collaborators, including his co-producer and editor, Oakland resident Tom Christopher.
The film was edited in Berkeley's own Zaentz Media Center in West Berkeley.
Cohen, who wrote, produced and directed "Facing Fear," learned of the story through the Fetzer Institute, a group focused on love and forgiveness worldwide, that hired him to document stories like this one.
This latest effort is not a newly discovered story. Boger and Zaal had been working together giving presentations on forgiveness and tolerance at the Museum of Tolerance for six years before Cohen decided to tell their story on film.
"Our goal had been to explore the process of forgiveness they were going through over the last six years," Cohen said. "We felt it hadn't been done really, up to that point. The idea was: Let's show how these guys grew in this process over six years in dealing with the challenges and struggles for forgiveness. And then there's the perpetrator and his own inner struggle and forgiving himself, which he talks about a lot in the film."
The shooting and editing of the film, and the fact that both men have been telling their story before audiences for six years, dismisses the need for any narration.
In classic docu-style interviews, the two tell the story themselves. Although they were interviewed separately, the editing has one man almost finishing the other's sentences.
"I don't really like that 'Voice of God' narration style," Cohen said. "I'd rather have the people in the film tell the story because it feels more honest to me. And we're not trying to tell people that forgiveness is the answer. We wanted people to make their own decisions on how it relates to them. Some people don't buy it."
Christopher said as he was working on the film and talking to his wife about it over dinner, the conversation kept coming back to the seemingly insurmountable idea of forgiving someone for such a horrific act.
"My wife was a very difficult sell on this topic," Christopher said. "She would say how could someone do this? Could you do this yourself? She made it very personal. I needed to make it seem visceral, something you could believe. In that way, we had our work cut out for us. Our biggest challenge was selling forgiveness. We're not trying to tell you how to do this; we're telling a story about two people who did it and how they did it."
Cohen joins a long list of documentary filmmakers with ties to the Bay Area who have been nominated over the years, including Charles Ferguson, who won an Academy Award in 2010 for the "Inside Job" about the U.S. financial crisis; Steven Okazaki, who has been nominated four times, most recently in 2008, and won in 1990 for "Days of Waiting," about a female Caucasian artist who voluntarily went to an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II; and Jessica Yu, who won a 1996 Oscar for "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," a film about a Berkeley journalist and poet and his struggle with polio that forced him to live much of his life in an iron lung.
Cohen, who has been busy working the media like a mad man leading up to the Academy Awards, said he hasn't thought about a speech if he wins.
"I haven't had time to think about all that," Cohen said. "We're already happy because the recognition is going to achieve our goal, because we know it will affect a lot of people."
Contact Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.
Academy awards BEST doCUMEnTaRy ShoRT SUBjECT
"Cavedigger" -- Jeffrey Karoff
"Facing Fear" -- Jason Cohen
"Karama Has No Walls" -- Sara Ishaq
"The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life" -- Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed
"Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall" -- Edgar Barens