Roland Joffé on Exploring the Humanity Behind Atrocity in ‘The Forgiven’

We chat with the director of The Killing Fields and The Mission about investigating mankind’s demons for his latest impassioned drama.
The Forgiven
By  · Published on March 21st, 2018

We chat with the director of The Killing Fields and The Mission about investigating mankind’s demons for his latest impassioned drama.

You know the adage that those that fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it? Filmmaker Roland Joffé has been hammering those lessons to our noggin for nearly 35 years. He’s a director obsessed with the history we’re all born from. From his perspective, the past is a living animal, forever influencing our decisions. To properly understand why we behave the way that we do, we must look to yesterday for answers.

Joffé launched his career on a pair of riveting dramas that relished in the very best and worst of humanity. The Killing Fields and The Mission are essential cinematic undertakings. They trade on beauty and brutality in an instant. They are mesmerizing works that challenge their audiences on the perceptions of morality. With The Forgiven, the director is looking to reignite a similar plea of compassion.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an outstanding achievement in human and political realities. It was a historic moment that all nations could learn from and Joffé is hoping our current culture will properly reexamine. While The Forgiven addresses the event through the eyes of Forest Whitaker’s Desmond Tutu, the goal was to reveal the triumph of the South African people.

I was thrilled to talk to the director over the phone. What was meant to be a brief chat quickly expanded into a thoughtful dialogue on the state of the world. We discussed the nature of history, the importance of having empathy for monsters, and what America could learn from an airing of sin.

Here is our conversation in full:

You’ve made a career of tackling these epic insights into atrocity. Where did that passion for these particular types of stories come from?

I think one of the things about Hollywood that I really rather admire is that, at its best, it sells the possibility of a different kind of a world. It sells the possibility that there is more to life than being cynical. There is actually a chance for human beings to achieve their best, and to create a more loving and rich environment.

I think that’s a wonderful message. I think there’s a great amount of truth in it. But of course, that has to balance out with what actually happens. What is it to be a human being? What is our history? What has made us what we are? That’s really what fascinates me because lots of people think that history is a dead thing. But history isn’t history. History is totally alive. We are all soaked in history without our even knowing it because almost everything we think, everything that we culturally accept, comes from, really, what people did before us.

Much as living in the city, tells us which streets to go down and controls our physical lives, history controls our mental lives. So I’m very fascinated at looking at that and finding in it those extraordinary sparks of humanity that counter the darkness very often. Because those sparks of humanity are what keeps it together. In a way, they’re what ensure our future.

What originally brought you to Desmond Tutu’s story?

Well, two things really. One, in simple terms, a play [“The Antichrist and the Archbishop”] was being performed in a small theater in London, which I saw, which dealt with aspects of this, written by Michael Ashton. But a few days after that, I happened to be thinking about this. I turned on CNN, and it was the most extraordinary program I’ve seen played out.

A woman was being interviewed who’d suffered in the massacres in Rwanda. She’d lost most of her family. The interviewer said, “This is Mrs. X,” who looked like she was a farmer’s wife. She lost four men in her family and her husband in the massacres. Then the camera pans around, and there’s a young man sitting there. She goes, “And this young man sitting here, having tea, who comes here every Friday, is the man who killed her family.”

The reporter says to this woman, “How can you do that?” The simple but very dignified woman said, in simple terms, “I loved my children more than my life. I loved my husband as much as my life. They’re gone. But should I turn my love of them into hate? No. I use my love for them to teach this young man love, which is something he hasn’t understood. But to something that turns him into a man. He comes here every Friday and repents what he did, and to choose forgiveness. Therefore my children and my husband have not lived in vain; they’ve lived for love.”

I was so struck by this. By this simple wisdom, which wasn’t from a politician, wasn’t coming from a church. It was coming from a simple person. That I realized, that ability to forgive is an innate human strength. It’s evolutionary strength actually. It’s something that belongs to no church or no politics, but something that we very, very much need. A survival tool, but it’s also noble and extraordinary.

I realized that I wanted to make a film that talked about that kind of nobility. Not really on Desmond Tutu’s path or on Nelson Mandela’s, but on the path of the ordinary civilians, ordinary people of South Africa. The ordinary black people of South Africa.

Eric Bana and I talked a little bit about that. About this idea with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, of putting all your sins out on the table as a means of healing a nation. I think that’s a notion that Americans find very hard to understand. Especially, what you’re just talking about, this idea of forgiveness on such a level.

Well, I think that’s a brilliant question, I really do. Thank you for giving me that question, because I think you’re right. I think, not all Americans by any means, but many Americans find that difficult to understand. Look at what’s happening in American society. Look at the fracturing that’s going on in this really wonderful nation. In a nation that was bound together, up to now I think, by a great sense of unity and a great sense that being American was a rich and validating experience. Inside that, you exercised compassion; you exercised warmth and a sense of belonging.

What’s happened, I think, over the past few years … I think it’s the political behaviors … Americans have become addicted to demonizing each other. Republicans demonizing Democrats. All those things, I think, get in the way of us understanding that we are all human beings. For good, bad, or indifferent. That what we do share is that humanity. The ability to forgive is freeing. A lot of what goes on in America, I think, is not having come to terms with the past that was built from slavery.

You’re talking about reparations.

Right. Yeah, and I think past has to be acknowledged. It should be admitted openly; it should be discussed openly. Not sentimentally, but in terms of the politics. Slaves were here to make money. That’s why they were exploited as moneymaking machines. But that has to be forgiven as well, in terms of moving forward. But it can’t be forgiven if it’s not admitted. If it’s not admitted, it stays in a subterranean, unacknowledged way.

I think one of the remarkable things about the Black American community, is the immense gift they’ve given to America. Which actually is a gift of civil rights and forgiveness, because so much of the Civil Rights Movement has come out of the black churches, and come out of black reverends. Who, I think, are a beacon of hope, and a glorious chapter in America’s history. Which I think will go on for a long time.

Forgiveness from both sides, acknowledgment, and maybe even restitution, all of those are things that should be discussed openly. Because in discussing them openly, a burden will be lifted, a darkness will be lifted. Something is admitted, and we’re free of elements of our history that constrain us and twist us out of our normal shapes.

Right. All of this is going through my head as I’m watching The Forgiven. I’m connecting the dots of what was happening here, to what’s happened in this country. You talked about the Civil Rights Movement, but I feel like White America pats itself on the back for accepting the Civil Rights Movement, and we just leave it in our past. We don’t acknowledge that there’s still so much work to do.

Well, I think again, that’s wonderfully put, and I think it’s time that this discussion was had. I think it’s time that there should be a great resurgence for that flame inside us all that says, “We are all one.” As Tutu said at one point, “Let’s not get held up by a pigment of the imagination.” We are all human beings. We are all on this tiny planet together, and together we can make something extraordinary out of this planet.

Separated, compassion-less, full of hate, turned against each other or ignoring our history, we lose that chance. It’s not a chance that we can afford to lose. It’s this little planet that’s too small, there are too many of us, and our problems are too big for us to pretend that we can’t openly discuss prejudice and how hidden it is, but how much the black community in America still suffers from it. Because we won’t talk about it honestly. We talk about it with fear, sometimes with loathing, and without an open admission that that’s what our history is. Inside that, we can find reconciliation and beauty.

How involved was Desmond Tutu in the making of this film?

Well, Desmond Tutu, of course, was very busy, and also not very well when we started working on this film. So, he read the screenplay, I told him the story, and at one point I did say to him, “You know, Archbishop, you’re not actually the hero of this story.” He’s a very amusing man. I mean, he’s delightful, delightful man amongst everything else, but he kinda looked at me with a little twinkle in his eye, and he said, “Really? Not the hero?” And I said, “No, because the hero is the ordinary people of South Africa. The black South Africans who, in this moment, took what you said and took what Mandela said, and in a sense, made it happen.”

I said, “Because, although you and Mandela did a wonderful thing politically and socially, a thing with many consequences, this could never have happened if ordinary South Africans hadn’t allowed it to happen and hadn’t gone with it.” He smiled, and just said, “Then make the film.”

How did Forest Whitaker get involved?

Well, Forrest is a remarkable man. He does a lot of work actually with conflict-resolution. So, he interests me very much; I’ll tell you, as an actor because I think he’s a genius. But also, in terms of his human connection. We were at a film festival, I think probably eight years ago, and we happened to meet. I said, “Forest, this is for a reason actually. I have story. I have something I want to show you. Now, this is gonna take a long time to get together because studios are not really gonna get behind this kinda movie, I don’t think. It’s gonna be an independent movie. So would you read it?”

He did. Forest, God bless him, stuck with this movie for eight years. Constantly waiting for me to get it together and never losing patience. Then we found a way of doing it. There are moments when he is the spirit of Tutu. It’s quite extraordinary.

Did he have an anxiety at playing such a historically significant human being?

Well, yes. I think … and this is where I really trusted Forest … I felt that Forest has an extraordinary ability to empathize and to become, in kind of a remarkable way, the characters that he’s portrayed. But I felt my role was to give him emotional insights. I have my own way of working, which Forest kind of describes. And has to do with using dreams and it’s not very conventional. But what it does, is it enables the actor to inhabit the emotional world of the person he’s portraying.

That enables … it certainly enabled Forest and Eric too … to find a kind of freedom in which they own the characters, become the characters, but can do that with what actors need, which is the freedom to express that character as it is or that needs to be expressed.

Speaking of Bana’s character, I feel like his would be the toughest one to crack, to understand his humanity. To find empathy for such a monstrous amalgamation. I know he’s not based on a particular person; he’s based on several cases. But how do you even construct someone like Blomfeld? To sit next to-

Well again, that came through a huge amount of reading. From not only what actually about what was going on in South Africa, but reading of various testimonials around the world of which, unfortunately, there are many. There were many in Argentina, and also what went on inside Nazi Germany. Just trying to understand, that one has to begin to separate the person and the ideology.

Very often what happens … And this is what I mean by the fact that we are inhabited by our history … Very often, people’s personalities are built around ideologies and shaped. That doesn’t stop them being human beings. It just means that the way their humanity expresses itself may be shocking, and what may die there is compassion.

Everyone can’t answer that by saying, “This man is a monster. Therefore, I have no compassion for him.” One has to have the strength to say, “Even though what happens here is monstrous, even though the deeds themselves are monstrous, I can’t enter the game. I can’t see a monster as merely a monster. Because if I do that, the monster wins. That destroys both my potential and the monster’s potential to become something else.” I’m putting that rather boldly, but you see what I’m saying.

I think so.

So, we’ll have to find out. In my talking, which I did a lot of South Africa, there was one thing that became very clear to me, which is an odd one. Which is, in a strange way, there was a disconnect, a strange kind of tension. So many of the people in the security forces who were doing things like this, that kind of racist element, are actually in love with Africa. And, oddly, in love with African culture. But at the same time, are confused and angry about that love, and are seeking to suppress it.

It’s complicated, but it’s true. That struck another truth to me, which is, I don’t believe that anybody is born racist. I don’t believe racism is innate. I think cultural differences are learned. So, I think we learn to be a racist. Which means that things can be unconnected. The monster can be allowed to connect up to different things, to discover compassion for other people and for himself.

I thought if one could make a story … Which is why, in a sense, this character’s not forgiven … But if I could make a story where the audience would like him to be forgiven, then the premise of the movie is starting to win. Which is that the ability to forgive genuinely, in the face of genuine desire for redemption, is a natural human strength. It’s not just a philosophy. It is innate in us.

I think that does happen in the movie. I think people do get to that point. It’s up to the audience to decide, but from what I’ve seen people do.

How do you balance that line of forgiveness for his character? Keeping the audience in mind, revealing this beast, but also the human too. Were you confident that you had achieved that?

Yes. When I began manifesting Blomfeld and could see that Eric felt the cracks inside the character. That one began to realize, which I hoped it would but wasn’t totally sure. Blomfeld says he is testing Tutu, to destroy Tutu. I believe this is true of many of the people in that area. They want to be told; they want to be confronted with the chance to break out of that.

The interesting thing is that in Argentina after the Junta fell, the World Health Organization, had to send extra psychiatrists to Argentina to deal with the torturers. Who, when suddenly what had validated their torture disappeared, were having nervous breakdowns because their world was shifting. They didn’t know how to deal with it. That’s something to understand.

I think Eric brought a vulnerability that often hides underneath these acts of tremendous hatred. That’s a pretty extraordinary thing to bring off, and I’m glad you brought that up. Cause I think Eric does manage to do that, and I salute him as an actor for it. It’s not easy to do.

The Forgiven is currently in select theaters and on VOD and Digital HD.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)