When he was 13, Matthew Boger’s mother threw him out of his home because he was gay. While living on the streets of Hollywood, he was savagely beaten by a group of neo-Nazi skinheads. Boger managed to survive the attack and eventually escape life on the streets. Twenty-five years later, Boger was working at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and found himself in conversation with a former neo-Nazi named Tim Zaal. The two men soon realized that they had met before. Zaal was one of the attackers who beat Boger and left him for dead. With their worlds turned upside down, the two embarked on a journey of forgiveness and reconciliation that challenged both to grapple with their own beliefs and fears. Neither could imagine that it would lead to an improbable collaboration — and a close friendship.
Jason Cohen’s stunning Oscar-nominated documentary short Facing Fear retraces the haunting accounts of the attack and the startling revelation that brought these men together again. While delving deep into their backgrounds, the roots of the ideologies that shape how they handle the reconciliation process are exposed. Self-doubt, anger and fear are just a few of the emotions they struggle through as they come to terms with their unimaginable situation. I recently sat down with Jason Cohen and Matthew Boger at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to discuss this powerful film.
Danny Miller: I was incredibly moved watching this film — hearing Matthew and Tim’s stories and the crazy fact of them forming a friendship so many years later. I wish every high school-age student could see this film, there are so many important messages.
Jason Cohen: We’ve started taking it out to schools. It’s actually the perfect length for high school classes —23 minutes. You can show the film and then have a robust discussion afterwards. Teachers and students have been responding really well. Getting it into schools was definitely one of our goals starting out and we’re hoping that the recognition of the Oscar nomination will help us to achieve that on a bigger scale.
Have you been surprised by how audiences are reacting to the film?
Matthew Boger: We’re often surprised by the emotional reaction we get. I think people really identify with the characters, both Tim and myself. The film makes them look at their own vulnerabilities, or maybe how in some cases they were like Tim when he was younger.
The fact that you were able to forgive Tim for what he did back then is such an inspiring part of the story. I assume that forgiveness was a process?
Absolutely, it took a few years to get to the point where we are today. Tim and I have been on this journey together from the moment we met as adults and realized who we were. He had already recanted his old ways long before we met again. I actually got to know him as a speaker here at the museum before we realized our connection. He didn’t look anything like he did 30 years ago when he was a neo-Nazi, I didn’t recognize him at first.
And it sounds like despite your history, today you trust Tim completely.
Yes. I would honestly trust him with my life. Even though I realize that this is someone who almost killed me and was basically laughing over my body.
How long have you two been doing presentations together?
We did our first presentation here at the museum in 2006 and we’ve gone all over since then — we’ve done it in the Central Jail, at different juvenile facilities, we just did the Israeli Scouts which was an amazing experience. And now with the film, it’s great to have a platform to continue doing this work.
Was there a moment when you realized how much you had changed your feelings about Tim and could trust him so completely?
Yes. I remember this one time when we were in an airport in New York. We had just finished taping a talk show and I was standing there waiting for my bag. Some guy came up to me and said, “Are you somebody very important?” So I just played with him and said, “Yeah, why?” And he said, “Oh, I noticed your bodyguard standing next to you.” That was an amazing moment for me. As Tim and I walked away, I realized that now people were viewing this person who once tried to kill me as someone who was protecting me, that’s how he was coming across.
Jason, did you have any fears going in about how you were going to tell this remarkable story?
Jason: Yeah. Matthew and Tim had come back together about six years before I met them. They’d done a lot of media early on and some of the stories that were done at the time exploited them a bit. They confided in me that the experience had left a bad taste in their mouth. So for me, my biggest hurdle was convincing them that I wanted to take a completely different approach. I had no interest in exploiting them as characters, I wanted to show them as real people.
Matthew, what was it about those earlier stories that you didn’t like?
Matthew: Everyone seemed to want to vilify Tim. As odd as it sounds for me to say this as his victim, that made me very uncomfortable — he’s really a changed person today. But the articles mostly focused on the brutality, what happened in that alley, and just included a few lines at the end about our relationship now. Our story is much bigger than what happened in that alley. It also bothered me that they always focused on Tim’s tattoos and called me a runaway which I wasn’t — my mother had thrown me out.
Jason: We really wanted to show that forgiveness is a two-way street. The normal reaction is to assume it’s only about the victim forgiving the perpetrator, but we wanted to show what Tim was going through as well — how he had to learn to forgive himself and deal with his whole life that was crashing down around him during that process. Both Tim and Matthew had a lot of inner struggles they were dealing with.
Matthew: I think the great thing that Jason pulled out of Tim was when he talks about how he ended up in that place to begin with and how if he can ultimately change, anyone can.
It’s true. Most of us never have the experience that either of you went through, but there’s so much to relate to here.
Jason: I feel like these themes are always relevant because you can find hate anywhere. I live in Berkeley, one of the most progressive cities in the world. And yet, when we were in the middle of promoting this film, there was a horrible hate crime in the community — a high school kid who didn’t identify as a boy or girl was set on fire by some other kids. These issues of bullying and homophobia unfortunately remain very relevant 34 years after Matthew’s attack, in addition to the important message about forgiveness that’s in the film.
Do you think it’s very different for young gay kids today growing up than when you were a kid in 1980?
Matthew: There’s certainly been a lot of movement forward. But in some ways I worry that things may get even more violent. The gay community has moved forward in so many ways, but when you back a monster into a corner, it tends to retaliate. So as more and more states go along with gay marriage and equal rights, you also see a rise in more violent hate crimes.
And certainly hate speech and bullying, which is so much easier now with the Internet and social media.
Yes. So I do think it’s getting easier for kids but there’s still a lot to do. Whenever teachers tell me “We have a bully-free school,” I say, “Oh, so you have only student enrolled here?” It’s just not possible to eliminate bullying completely and the first thing kids tend to get bullied on is their sexuality.
This is such a remarkable story I wonder if you’ve ever been accused of fabricating any part of it.
It’s funny because when this all came about and Tim and I started doing presentations, the museum had this whole vetting process that I wasn’t even aware of. They researched everything and talked to old friends of mine to see if the stories matched up. They even talked to Tim’s former Nazi leader who is still involved in that world. Of course, who in their right mind would tell this horrific story if it had never happened? Especially for Tim, talking about this awful violence he had perpetrated against this innocent child and knowing that he’d be hated at first for admitting to that.
Right. And, of course, the film is powerful for all audiences, not just young people.
Jason: Yes, I don’t even like to classify it as an “educational film” even though I hope people learn from it. In all of our screenings, we have many adults who tell me that they’re getting so much out of it, especially the message about forgiveness. This is something that we’re all dealing with every day.
And now here you are getting ready to go to the Oscars. Is that just mind-boggling?
Yes! We’re all going and we’re very excited about it. I know it sounds cliché, but nobody makes a film to win an award. So for us this is just icing on the cake. We were so happy that the film was getting such a positive reaction and we’re thrilled that this honor may open doors to get the film out to more people which was our goal to begin with.
Matthew: It is weird to imagine Tim and I there — from the alley to the Oscars!
Crazy. How was the luncheon for the nominees? Did you get to talk to Cate Blanchett?
I did, actually! (Laughs.) You know, I’ve been so swamped since the nomination was announced that, to be honest, I hadn’t really processed it. Being at that luncheon was really the first time it hit me. There I am in the group photo standing next to Christian Bale! He was very gracious, he came over and wanted to hear all about the film.
Actually, Christian Bale would be great as Tim if you ever decide to turn your story into a feature film!
Matthew: (Laughs.) Maybe. I’m very protective of this story but who knows? Now I just have to think of who could play me!