Jewish institutions provided crucial direction at both ends of Jason Cohen’s winding road from would-be sportscaster to Academy Award–nominated filmmaker.
The 42-year-old Berkeley director is up for best documentary short with “Facing Fear,” a moving saga of the unexpected relationship between a former skinhead and the gay man he almost kicked to death more than 25 years ago.
Tim Zaal and Matthew Boger separately describe that terrible night in 1981 and how they found themselves in the same West Hollywood alley, when Zaal and a group of fellow skinheads attacked Boger.
Decades later, the two men’s paths crossed at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, of all places, where Boger is now a manager and Zaal a consultant and speaker.
“Facing Fear” and the other four 2014 documentary short nominees — including “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” a portrait of a 109-year-old Holocaust survivor — screen Saturday, Feb. 1 and Sunday, Feb. 2 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and open Feb. 7 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and the Camera 3 in San Jose.
In his younger days, Cohen was a sports-crazy teenager, serving as announcer for his high school’s basketball games and wrestling matches.
He was also active in the Reform Jewish youth group NFTY.
“That was where I first got the social-action bug, because I was not getting that in public high school in my suburban New Jersey town, which did not have a big Jewish population,” Cohen says. “I would go to these conclaves where we’d go away for a week and discuss issues and talk about projects that can actually have an impact and change the world. That definitely pushed me into documentary filmmaking as a way of getting messages out to the world in a powerful way.”
Eventually, yes, but not immediately.
Cohen penned his college entrance essay on Jewish sportscaster Marv Albert, and wrote about sports for the school newspaper while studying journalism and communication arts and film at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“I started seeing there was more out there than the sports world,” Cohen recalls. “I started doing film work and thinking about merging journalism and film. What is the marriage of that? Documentary.”
After graduation in 1994, Cohen freelanced for New York broadcasters like VH1, where he’d previously held summer jobs. Six months later, he packed up and moved to the Bay Area.
His array of production credits include Steven Okazaki’s Emmy-winning documentary “White Light/Black Rain” and countless pieces for ESPN. Cohen’s client list includes numerous corporations and nonprofits, which is what led him to “Facing Fear.”
Fetzer Institute, a Kalamazoo, Mich., nonprofit whose mission is “to foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in our global community,” approached Cohen two years ago with a list of its current projects and asked which might make for a good film. Boger and Zaal’s story jumped off the page, Cohen recalls.
“When you read it, it sounds completely remarkable or unbelievable or scripted. I wanted to dig into it further.”
When news of Boger and Zaal’s reconnection at the Museum of Tolerance broke six years ago, hordes of media descended. Both men were docents at the museum. (Zaal, having served jail time for the beating of an Iranian couple in L.A., had reformed his ways and even married a Jewish woman.) But the men didn’t know of their mutual connection until a colleague brought them together and they figured out their ugly past encounter.
Cohen assured the museum that he and the Fetzer Institute were interested in going beyond the sensational quality of the attack and the reconciliation. “We wanted to come at a different angle and examine the forgiveness process,” Cohen says.
In the initial glare of the spotlight, “Matthew and Tim were not at any point in that forgiveness process where they were ready to talk about it.”
They are now. In fact, the men give joint presentations at the Museum of Tolerance at least once a month.
Cohen has shown “Facing Fear” at the museum, though he counts another screening among his highlights so far.
“When we took the film to Amsterdam to screen at IDFA, the biggest documentary festival in Europe, we were invited by the Anne Frank House to come screen the film for their staff and invited guests. It was amazing, obviously, knowing the history.”
Ultimately, “Facing Fear” is one of five stories of forgiveness that Cohen filmed for Fetzer. It stands alone, while the other four shorts comprise a feature-length film that’s waiting for Cohen to decide how to tackle the festival circuit.
It’s a sure bet he won’t have any time before the Academy Awards are handed out on March 2.
“Facing Fear” screens Saturday, Feb. 1 and Sunday, Feb. 2 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and opens Feb. 8 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco and Camera 3 in San Jose.