Forgiveness is mysterious and misunderstood. It is timeless yet topical. It can be hopeful or hurtful. It is big and getting bigger.
That made it a perfect topic for New York-based filmmaker Helen Whitney, whose award-winning work often taps into the spiritual realm, including an exploration of faith and doubt at Ground Zero, a peek inside a Trappist monastery and a profile of Pope John Paul II.
Utahns know Whitney best, though, for her 2007 PBS documentary "The Mormons."
The four-hour film may be the most comprehensive, thoughtful look at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints produced to date, touching on the faith's history, theology, practices, strengths and tensions. To many, she came as close as any outsider could to understanding the church and dispelling stereotypes.
After completing that three-year project, an executive producer approached Whitney with a new idea -- forgiveness.
At first, she hesitated.
After all, the topic is enormous and vulnerable to sentimentality and New Age piety, Whitney says in a phone interview from the campus of Dixie State College in St. George, where she has been guest lecturing this week. "Then there's that unexamined assumption that it is always better to forgive. If you can't, you are a spiritual underachiever."
She rejected such easy explanations but was hooked on the topic.
"I very quickly realized this is a subject that has a deep resonance on a personal level," she says. "Right from the beginning, I decided my film was going to be about the complexity of forgiving, that it would honor the power and acknowledge the dangers."
The result of her nearly three-year effort is another four-hour, two-part film, "Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate," which will air later this year.
It began, she says, within the human heart, was carried along in rituals and remembrance, and now is the stuff of therapy and talking heads, politics and pronouncements that touch every society. It is at once both old and radically new.
The prophetic and the personal
For centuries, the idea of forgiveness belonged to religion. It was expressed in prayer and meditation and embedded in all faith texts, the narrator intones. Muslims pray for it five times a day; Jews have a special day devoted to it; penance is one of the Catholic sacraments.
Many Christians believe humans must forgive one another so God will forgive them. That notion played out in the aftermath of a 2006 shooting of Amish schoolgirls, which the film examines in depth, when the Pennsylvania community immediately forgave the killer and even embraced his family.
Was that healthy or even righteous?
"At one level, I admire them, but at another level, I am very skeptical and troubled by the idea that you instantly forgive even the most horrific and evil acts," Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby says in the film. Christians say that God loves everyone, but a god "who wouldn't discriminate between the murderer and the murdered children -- that's not the kind of God I can believe in."
Such Godtalk is irrelevant to many in today's world as forgiveness moves from the pulpit to the private.
In a deeply moving section called, "The Penitent," Whitney juxtaposes the experience of Katherine Ann Power, a 1960s Vietnam War protester, who participated in a violent act that resulted in the death of a Boston-area policeman, with the never-ending agonies of the officer's daughter, Clare Schroeder.
Power was on the lam for 23 years, then gave herself up and went to prison, where she worked to peel back layers of defensiveness and faced the fear that she might be unforgivable. To Schroeder, that's exactly what she was.
"What she did is not forgivable," she says, "but that does not mean she can't go on to be the person she should be."
From the private to the political
Reconciliation and apology are close relatives and play essential roles in the lives of individuals. In the past 30 years, however, these notions have migrated into the lives of nations -- the focus of Whitney's second two hours.
Polish officials apologized to Jews for mass murders in the 1940s. The Japanese emperor apologized for attacks on neighbors. Latin American societies emerging from violent conflicts have set up commissions, searching for truths of what occurred, asking painful questions about how to deal with demons from their past. Survivors of the Rwandan genocide meet in small groups to face neighbors who took part in the killings.
"It is an extraordinary sea change, a new ethic for our age," Whitney says. "Historically, powerful nations have never even acknowledged their crimes, let alone apologize."
The film makes clear that some view forgiveness for large-scale atrocities as an obscenity. Public forgiveness can be shallow, terrible criminals can go free, shattered countries can create a culture of impunity.
Whether cynical or sincere, coerced or voluntary, Whitney says, these apologies are proliferating. And the exchanges and emotions are not predictable.
Watching hours of footage from South Africa's "Truth and Reconciliation Commission," Whitney was stunned by the kinds of questions victims posed.
Instead of demanding explanations and justifications, a mother asks, "What was my son wearing when you killed him? What were his last words? What was he eating?"
Such details of death and destruction matter to victims, even those offering absolution.
In the end, Whitney says, she was surprised at how little consensus there is about forgiveness and why it is on the rise.
"From the beginning of time, human beings have done terrible things to each other and yearned for redemption," she says. "Why the urgency today?"
Perhaps it is because of modern transparency. It is more difficult for people to hide horrific acts in a cloak of secrecy, telling their crimes only to a rabbi, imam or priest in a closet.
For Whitney, that doesn't fully explain the forgiveness trend, but she is willing to live with the question. It's what she does.
Screening of "Forgiveness: Part I"
» Jan. 31, 4 p.m., Gould Auditorium, Marriott Library, University of Utah.
» Feb. 11, 10 a.m., Utah Valley University Library's Lecture Hall.
Panel discussion of "The Mormons"
» Feb. 12, 10 a.m., Utah Valley University Library's Lakeview Room.
Screening of "Forgiveness, Part II"
» Feb. 21, 7 p.m., Waldemer P. Reed Auditorium, Orson Spencer Hall, University of Utah.
All events are free and open to the public.