Former McKnight Filmmaking Fellow and award-winning filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson’s newest documentary follows four people—in the US, Cambodia, and Australia—as they negotiate forgiveness and justice in the face of extraordinary trauma.
An excerpt from Risking Light screens at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, September 15 as part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the program, I connected with Mikkelson to discuss the film. This is the sixth interview with each of the filmmakers showcased in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher, Karl Jacob, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.
In Risking Light you speak with subjects who have been victims of tremendous abuse and trauma. What made you decide to make a film about forgiveness? As you worked on the project did you always feel ready to forgive, or were you also experiencing anger and sadness about what the film’s subjects had faced?
Honestly, I was looking for some hope in my own life. I’d become rather jaded about people and was searching for stories that could change my perspective. Then I met Mary Johnson, who shared her story of the loss of her son and ultimate forgiveness of O’shea Israel, his killer. I knew this was the story. But I also saw that their story, if told alone, only gave one perspective on forgiveness and was compelled to find more. To really explore what forgiveness was and what it wasn’t.
As someone with at least an average level of empathy, I found that swimming in these stories of pain and injustice was challenging. This is what kept me digging into their stories. I needed to understand how one gets from anger and pain to forgiveness and healing.
I think that I tend toward films that explore things that I need to work through in my own life. I had a lot of repressed anger directed toward myself and others, for a lifetime of injuries. Nothing nearly as profound as the subjects of Risking Light, but enough to have made me pretty bitter. I pretended that wasn’t the case, but the more I dug into this subject, the more my own anger and frustration would surface. Many times, this would subconsciously lead to a slowdown in production. Then I’d figure out my own challenge, and miraculously I was able to move forward with the film.
Did you meet with each of our subjects knowing that they wanted to forgive the perpetrators of crimes and violence against them, or did the journey towards forgiveness begin during filmmaking?
In each case, their journey to forgiveness was complete or nearly complete before we met. That is how I found them. One of the things I find interesting about each of their stories is that they are all still on a journey. A journey to continue healing and a journey to make a positive change in the world, as a result of their acts of profound forgiveness. It is rare to find someone who has forgiven injuries as big as these without having moments where they are haunted by the past. Pain has a way of showing up in your life in all sorts of ways. But having begun this journey, they are much more prepared to handle the surprise moments when pain revisits in a different form.
In addition, each of them is compelled to do more with their lives as a result of their forgiveness. They have turned something that was destroying them internally to something where they are now helping others in their lives, in big and small ways, heal. The ripple effect of forgiveness is clear in all of these stories. It is not just about you. It is about who you become in the world and how that new person changes the lives of others.
First person accounts play a large role in the film. Why did you believe it was important to have the subjects speak for themselves about their experiences with limited formal or narrative interventions? What role does the testimonial play in your documentary practice?
I am a big fan of having subjects tell their own story, without the use of narration, whenever possible. In this film, that went to the extent of using an EyeDirect device that effectively projects my face on the lens of the camera, so they are looking directly at the camera. Thus they are looking directly at the audience. Looking into a subject’s eyes, you see another layer of vulnerability and experience a more intimate connection with them as an audience member. Throughout my career, I have tried to tell the stories of my subjects with emotional honesty. We spend so much of our time debating issues, in effect distancing ourselves from the personal impact of our actions, political or personal. I’m a believer in the power of the personal story and sharing of lived experiences as a way to connect us as humans. To increase empathy and compassion for one another.
The film addresses restorative justice, a system that focuses on reconciliation and rehabilitation instead of punishment. What role do you believe restorative justice has to play in the criminal justice system?
Restorative justice plays a critical role in the story of Mary and O’shea, in particular. They came together through a restorative justice process. Prior to making this film, I didn’t have any exposure to this kind of process. Since then, I have really grown to see restorative justice as one of the keys to creating a more just society, through making Risking Light, as well as additional work I’ve done on restorative dialogue circles. Every story, every crime, every person is unique. So I hesitate to speak in general terms when it comes to restorative justice. But I will say that I have seen it utilized at all levels. From petty crime to murder to war crimes. So often we frame “justice” in terms of retribution or punishment, but what if “justice” was something that would allow victims to process their pain and heal? What if offenders could learn the impact of their crimes and possibly reform, thus breaking the cycle of violence? This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what restorative justice can bring to the criminal justice system.