On paper, Forgiveness, a two-part, three-hour (trimmed down from four hours) documentary, written, produced, and directed by Helen Whitney, sounds like just the kind of thing it would be good to see more of on PBS: a serious film that means to offer a personal, wide-ranging take on a complicated subject. In reality, it's a messy affair that suffers from sticking too close to what might be called the PBS house style when it comes to vaguely spiritual matters, which might be described as kind of New Agey. There are moments during Forgiveness when you wouldn't be too surprised to see Leo Buscaglia, back from the dead to tell us all how he's forgiven the neighbors who don't understand his great love affair with leaves.
One challenge of dealing with this kind of subject on TV is that, even when there's nothing to do but shovel information onto the soundtrack in voice-over, you still have to show pictures of something. The first half of Forgiveness is especially heavy on images of dark skies and autumnal landscapes and still photos of dead-looking people in contorted positions, while dirge-like strings or a single piano are heard, and deep thoughts are intoned by a narrator who sounds like the sum of every NPR announcer you've ever listened to while falling asleep at the wheel. This Jack Handey stuff is there to pad out appearances by writers, historians, and religious authorities, who share stories from their lives and from history, most of whom are lit in shadow as if they were Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, serenely kidding himself that nobody will be able to tell that he's put on a few pounds. If an episode of This American Life had terminal illness, it would sound like this.
Whitney, who wrote, produced, and directed the film, is a veteran TV documentarian who's made films for Frontline, American Masters, and ABC News, back when network television showed news documentaries. In 2002, she made a film about 9/11 for PBS called Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, and her most recent work was an American Experience film on the Mormons. The avoidance of a personal voice in this film—she's more determined to include as many different viewpoints as possible, while seeming to lend them all equal weight—is a form of self-negation that may have a spiritual basis of its own, but it's too much in keeping with the attitude that seems dominant at PBS these days, which can be summed up as, "If nobody notices we made this, they won't cite it as a reason to cut off our funding." Without a strong sensibility to fuse the pieces of Forgiveness, every segment is left to stand on its own. It's not that there isn't some strong material here. But you have to sift for it.
The quickest and strongest passage in the first episode, which first aired last week, is also the one that ends with the ripest stroke of self-parody. It's about a man who used to be a member of the South African government's "security forces" during the Apartheid era. This is also the one sequence when the director's feelings about what she's showing us are hardest to miss. Talking about how he killed a prisoner, the security man appears to be smiling as he recalls, "I personally assaulted him with a hose pipe, which was very effective, because it doesn't leave any marks." The director may possibly detect a trace of insincerity in his tone, because she lights him as if he were Satan in an episode of Tales from the Darkside. The murder was subsequently covered up and the corpse disposed of, and for years afterward, the security man harassed the dead man's mother by calling her into his office to accuse her of concealing her son's whereabouts.
After the Apartheid regime collapsed, this sweetheart testified to his crimes before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in exchange for amnesty. Now, claiming to have undergone a religious conversion, he shows up at the home of his victim's family, hat and camera crew in hand, to ask them for forgiveness. First, the dead man's father gently but firmly tells him, thanks for stopping by, but I don't think so. Then somebody smashes the man upside the head with a vase, turning his forehead into a bloody broken-window pattern that, in one of those irresistible details that no fiction artist would be able to get away with, kind of resembles a swastika. That should be the end of that, but then the narrator, in that over-explainatory way that PBS viewers have come to know and cringe at, says, "If the request for forgiveness comes too late, if it is felt to be false or to violate a sense of justice, then it can provoke outrage, even understandable violence." Never before have so many people sitting watching television in different living rooms said at the same time, in the same sarcastic way, "Do ya think!?"
The best part of Forgiveness is the last hour, which deals with the legacies of Nazi Germany and the genocide in Rwanda, juggling stories of individual acts of forgiveness with analysis of what is described by the writer Thane Rosenbaum as a new, "very different age" of official acts of contrition, "where nations own up to their past, where nations accept collective guilt and responsibility for their guilt; nations acknowledge what they've done; nations memorialize what they've done; they undertake gestures of restitution and reparation and seek forgiveness for what they've done." The show seems to regard the utopian implications behind the increasingly ritualized gestures of official contrition with more faith in the good motives behind them than the cynic in me might like. (I know it's hard to believe, but he's in here, seriously!) To give her credit, Whitney does include an indelible exchange between Joshua Blahyl, better known as General Butt Naked, and an interlocutor during his testimony before the Liberian Truth Commission. "The children were alive when you carried out the ritual, is that correct?" the woman asks, the "ritual" in question being Blahyl's habit of preparing his men for battle by cutting out a child's heart and passing it around to be eaten. At a loss for words but with a firm grasp on the whole "show of contrition" thing, Blahyl simply mutters, "Sorry. Sorry."
The U.S. government, under Ronald Reagan, only comes up indirectly, in a segment about Reagan's determination to lay a wreath at a cemetery that included the graves of Nazi S.S. soldiers during his 1985 visit to Germany. When the news broke, the selection of the cemetery was described as a screw-up by White House chief of staff Michael Deaver, but after all hell broke loose, Reagan, to use the preferred metaphor used approximately 300 times in ten minutes by his former aides, "stuck to his guns", and began insisting that the visit was necessary for the psychic and emotional of the German people. Lance Morrow, a writer whose byline has appeared like kudzu in Time magazine for approximately as long as I have inhabited the earth, explains that Reagan epitomized "the American brusqueness that rejects [hanging onto the past] and says, you know, Scarlett O'Hara, 'tomorrow is another day.' Reagan was Scarlett O'Hara." If these are not the wisest words ever uttered on the subject, they at least gave me a mental image that I expect I'll be using to giggle myself to sleep for many nights to come.
Whatever the faults of Forgiveness overall, it's worth seeking out the last hour and change, to see such testimony as the German writer Hannes Heer's account of how he was able to bond for the first time with his unrepentant Nazi father after the old man slipped into dementia and "became a child" again, and Father Petero Sabune, a former prison chaplain who has offered counsel to those who participated in the Rwanda genocide, including those who were interested in being forgiven and those who didn't understand why people thought they'd done anything wrong. "We can't guarantee," he told those who were repentant, "that just because you say that, you're going to be forgiven. You may never be forgiven. You may never know." (The first 20-odd minutes of tonight's show is taken up with the story of a woman who, after she and her husband divorced, moved 1,200 miles away, and left the kids with him. Can her ex-husband and their children ever forgive her? Can she ever forgive herself? Would anyone even think to ask these questions if it had been the man who left his ex in charge of raising their offspring when he took off to have a life? "I had all my eggs in one basket," says the ex-husband all these years later, "and she stepped on the basket." There is only one correct response to that statement, and I don't think anyone has ever said it better than Livia Soprano.)
One thing that comes up again and again here, and that may surprise some people, is how controversial the idea of forgiveness actually is, when you take it out of the realm of abstract concepts and start applying it to people's actual lives. The show is full of people belligerently asserting their right to hang onto their hatred of whomever has wronged them, to the point that they believe that to forgive is to show disrespect to the dead. When a man confronting his former torturer at South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation hearings simply asks, "What kind of man are you?" it cuts through a lot of smog. Then there's the man the historian Anna Rosmur talks about, a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps who, after the war, settled down in a part of Germany where many of his neighbors had been complicit in, or at least not protesting of, Hitler's policies and were now prepared to live and let live but not about to pretend to be sorry for having fit in so well when anti-Semitic murder was official policy. Forgiving them, he told her, had nothing to do with the goodness of his heart and everything to do with practicality: They weren't going to change, and he didn't want to leave, and since he was the one with the more highly developed brain, it was up to him to find a way for them to live together. "Forgiveness," Ramsur says sadly, "may not only be granted out of graciousness, out of altruism, but perhaps, to some degree, at least, to sustain your own sanity, to cut yourself free."