By Tom Ue.
Produced, directed, and co-written by Roland Joffé, The Forgiven is an adaptation of Michael Ashton’s play The Archbishop and the Antichrist. The film stars Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who, in his work as President of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, meets Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), a murderer seeking clemency. The film was shot entirely in Cape Town and has since been screened in the London International Film Festival. Joffé earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, in the category of Best Director, for The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986). He has earned both the Palme d’Or and the Technical Grand Prize for the latter film. In what follows, we discuss his creative process behind The Forgiven.
This is the first film that you have directed since 2013. What attracted you to this project?
This movie has been gestating for a long time because independent movies are notoriously difficult to get off the ground and to finance, particularly the way the world operates now with constant remakes and marvel comic book movies. I’ve got nothing against them, but it makes life very tough for independents. So, this is a movie I’ve been working on for quite a long time. And I think it is pertinent at this point in world history and particularly in American history. It’s the time for forgiveness to be discussed. It needs to become part of the general dialogue; and in a real sense where America has to come to terms with the fact that it is made up of diverse cultures and people with diverse histories. It has to be treated as a gift and not demonized and so it is a very important time in our history.
What attracted you to Michael Ashton’s play The Archbishop and the Antichrist?
When I went and saw the play, which is very different to the film, I was struck by the idea that these two characters are really, in an odd way, one character. I thought it was rather strong in the sense that there is side of us that is Desmond Tutu and there is a side of us that is this enigma Blomfeld. And I thought that was very powerful and, when I was thinking about this I happened to turn on CNN, and there is an interview with a Rwandan woman who, in the Hutu Tutsi massacre, had lost most of her family.
The CNN interviewer said this is Mrs. X. She was an ordinary farmer’s wife; she lost all her family, four children and her husband in this violence; and then the camera pans to a young man sitting there. The interviewer says in a sudden horrorstruck voice “and this young man who comes to tea every Friday is the man who killed them.” And then she turns back to this very simple but rather remarkable woman and says to her, “How can you do that? How do you have the murderer of your family here?” And the woman looked at him and she said, from a place very deep inside her. She just said very simply, “I love my children more than my life. I love my husband as much as my life. But that was love. How am I to turn that love into hatred? Because if I do, I deny the love that I have for my children and my husband. No, I bring him here so that he sees the love that he destroyed and, in seeing that, understands love and can then become a full human being, can be forgiven, and then we can move on.” And I thought, oh my God. This is not coming from the UN and it’s not coming from a member of any particular political party or any sector. This is an ordinary person expressing something I believe is innate inside human beings, which is our ability to forgive. Not only is it innate but I think it’s also a survival tool and I think without it we wouldn’t exist at all. But it’s also an evolutionary ability that often needs to be thought about and needs to be given foreplay because it is also freeing, it frees both the victim and the perpetrator in an emotional way. It’s extraordinarily important and it’s the only way we can move on, otherwise we’re left with nothing but a cycle of hatred.
And then about a week later, I turned on the TV again and they happened to be interviewing a Palestinian whose daughter had been killed by an Israeli bulldozer, I think, and he started a society, basically, to encourage friendship and relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. And when the interviewer asked him why, he said a similar thing, “Because I understand what hate does. Do you think I was to perpetrate more hate? I love my daughter, I want to talk about love that’s what I want to create in her honor.” And again, I realized, behind so much politics, ordinary people feel like this. And I would love to make a movie where that ordinary voice in its full power is allowed to express itself and not buried under conflicting political views.
In what ways has the play developed?
It developed extraordinarily. We kept the kind of central confrontation between the two characters because I thought it was very cinematic actually. Although it’s in one cell, their faces and what they’re doing is wonderful. I mean it’s as good as being outside just in terms of the emotional terrains. But we then added the whole Pollsmoor Prison, how that operated, the actual forgiveness, the way that happened, Mrs. Morobe’s (Thandi Makhubele) character, ll that groove around this kind of central thing. So the play really became a film.
The confrontations between Desmond Tutu and Piet Blomfeld are remarkably intense: how did you keep the momentum?
Well I think that should be laid at the feet of the actors who so remarkably inhabited their characters. So forcefully, so richly, that the engagement becomes absolutely fascinating and the scenes were extremely gripping to film because it went into the world of both those characters. It was a sort of divine resting and, in that sense, it was a bit like Milton’s divine comedy where the angel wrestles God, the fallen angel that is, and there was extraordinary intensity. When we actually shot the scenes, most of the shots lasted for the full length of the scene. The actors were so into the scenes that we didn’t do it in short bits very often; we kind of did the scene again and again. They were capable of doing the whole scene all the way through in all its complexity. It was remarkable.
Tell us about Eric Bana’s and Forest Whitaker’s transformations.
There is something very remarkable about the way great actors can transform themselves and I think both Eric and Forest are great actors in slightly different ways. But they’re both great because they both, in a way, are capable of sacrificing themselves for the character. And that’s quite a painful thing to do because they have to shrink their own personalities, if you like, to a smaller and smaller kernel. Then use those bits to grow into different shape. That’s pretty brave actually. I think acting is a pretty brave thing. And I have my own particular way of working that uses dreams and stories. I don’t work with the psychological notes. I only work through emotion because my belief is that, as human beings, we work through emotion and memory. My job was to give them memory and emotion that would stimulate that growth that was going on inside them. They went on different journeys. Eric, for instance, went out and spent a lot of time in with South Africans, with farmers and policemen, just kind of absorbing the way they speak, the way they feel about their history with things that connect to them, absorbing those human beings.
Forest spent a certain amount of time with archbishop Tutu, who’s not well, so he couldn’t spend that much time; but obsessively watching his speeches, reading his books, thinking like him. But at a certain point what happens is, when you’re with the actors, you realize the characters have arrived and the actors have gone. And that’s a really important moment, but that’s great acting. And at that point, they are free to improvise: if something pops up into their mind, I always say to them, if it’s the character speaking. let the character speak.
It doesn’t matter if the line isn’t there, if the character wants the line he should have it and say it because that’s how we are in life.
To return to your earlier comment: What do you think makes the film especially relevant in this historical moment?
This a movie about forgiveness, but it’s also about forgiveness only if you’re telling the truth. And I think that, in this historical moment, particularly in America, in other countries too, but particularly in America, this is a point where these kinds of discussions need to be had: America’s addiction to the demonization of others, and its inherent racism, which is there and which permeates life in a way that people don’t like to admit. And I think that needs to be brought out into the open. It needs to be discussed with love and compassion, but honesty.
America can free itself from the history of slavery without denying the importance of the issue. The wealth acquired from slavery, which is the seed money, if you like, allowed America to become what it became. But what I think is going on in American now, through the obsession with political partying, is a lack of forgiveness in the current language, the lack of compassion, and the demonization of the other. I think, when you have a president who refers to his political opponents as them or refers a political opponent as a bad man, it’s a very bad sign about what America stands for and what America should be. But it’s also telling us that this needs to change and, in my view, we need to come to a fair admission that the history of African Americans, which is the history of America, is in many ways a golden thread. I think America rose up an enormous debt of gratitude through its African American populations from all sides because they have ignited the debate and I think that’s why this is a very crucial time, because this debate is present in the country at the moment.
What is next for you?
I have a number of things that I am discussing, some of which I am not at liberty to disclose because they’re very early days. But, I have three projects I’m really, really interested in; two are ones where I worked on the screenplay. One is set in India and the other is set in Sicily. And then there is one set in America, in a rather surprising part of America, which I don’t want to reveal just yet; but I am busier than I have any right to be, I think, and really enjoying it.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.