Roland Joffe is the director of the acclaimed, Oscar-winning historical films THE KILLING FIELDS (1984) and THE MISSION (1986) - both earned him Best Director Oscar nominations and were produced by David Puttnam. Ever since beginning his career in television in the 70s, Joffe has been interested in stories that are political, examine man's capacity for good and evil, for faith and forgiveness, for rationality and irrationality. His films are often memorably photographed in fascinating locations, immaculately scored, and bring out the best in their actors. Joffe's other works include FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY (1989), CITY OF JOY (1992), THE SCARLET LETTER (1995), GOODBYE LOVER (1998), VATEL (2000), THERE BE DRAGONS (2011) and THE LOVERS (2013). His latest film, THE FORGIVEN, is set during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission period in post-Apartheid South Africa. It looks at the relationship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a racist murderer in prison for life who holds the keys to solving a mystery the Commission is investigating. The lead roles, respectively, are played by Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana, who deliver stunning performances. I spoke to Joffe about what attracted him to the project, working with Bana and Whitaker, his process with actors in general, his interest in stories about forgiveness and healing, and his feelings on the power of image and sound and of film in telling complex stories.          

When did you first come across the screenplay for THE FORGIVEN? What was your immediate response? 
It wasn’t really a script. I came across a play by Michael Ashton that grew later into the film. My response for it was that it was an extraordinary subject. This conflict between the Archbishop and Blomfeld can be seen as conflict between two characters but also it can be seen as making up as one character. We both have aspects of both those men in us. That became fascinating to me. While I was thinking about this subject, I was watching a CNN program and it was coming from a small village in Rwanda, a rural village. There was a Rwandan farmer, a very poor woman sitting in her hut being interviewed. The interviewer said this is Mrs. X and she lost four members of her family - her children and her husband in the Tutsi Hutu genocide. And then the interviewer panicked a little bit and the camera pans across to a young man sitting on the other side of the hut. This young man who comes to tea every Friday is the man who killed her family. And the interviewer turns back, the blonde CNN interviewer with the total white face,  and says to the Rwandan woman.  ''How did you do this? How could you do that?'' Then the woman said something profound. It gripped me to the television.  In a simple way, she said, ''I love my daughter, my children more than my life. I love my husband as much as my life. Am I to turn that love into hate? Am I to turn their memory, their loving memory into acts of hate.  No. I use that love for them to give to him. (She pointed at the young man. )... So he could see what he has taken away. He can see what he has lacked. And he can learn their love... through forgiveness. That is how I honored them. '' I was really startled by this because I thought… just in the tone of the American interviewer, this was so interesting that it was difficult for her to come to terms with. But I was thinking this is also innate. This ability to have compassion and forgiveness is probably innate in human beings.  And certainly, science would tell us that it exists in higher primates.  

While I was thinking about this some weeks later, I was also watching television. There was a Palestinian - an elegant, 50 year old Palestinian who was in great emotional pain. A year  before, he had lost his daughter to an Israeli bulldozer.  If I have the story right, she was accidentally killed by an Israeli bulldozer which was knocking down a wall.  And his response to that was to start a society to promote the friendship between Israelis and Palestinians.  When he was asked why, he said again, something so ineffably simple, he said,  “I have experienced what hate does, do you think I would want to expand more of that? I love my daughter.  Am I to turn my love for my daughter into acts of hatred. Absolutely not. I want people to love each other because I know the pain of losing someone that you love. And I can do that in her name. '' And I thought,  there you go again - An ordinary person, not a politician, expressing from his heart what he innately believes. Those ordinary people need a voice and that’s what I really wanted this film to be.

What was the biggest attraction for you in making the film?
The biggest attraction of making this film was its challenge. This was going to be a notoriously difficult film to make. For it to really work, we would probably have to film in a maximum security prison, because we couldn’t afford to build one, that is for sure. Even if we could, it wouldn’t be real. It would probably mean working with real prisoners - either in the prison or ex-convicts who then probably have to go back into prison.  It would have to be shot in South Africa. I would need to find two amazing actors who be capable of playing these two characters. All of those challenges are so undoubtedly attractive because with a challenge like that one wants to try to achieve to rise to the occasion.

Also, the subject matter is extraordinarily attractive. Because I think of all the periods in human history, although there are many,  this is one in which forgiveness needs to be discussed and thought about. Particularly at a time when America and in particular, many parts of Europe, are beginning to become, I would say, addicted to demonizing others as a way of living. And that is dangerous and at root, inhuman. Although humans are capable of doing it.

Eric Bana and Forest Whitaker are sensational in the film. What was it like working with them on the movie? What do you think they brought to the movie?
First of all, I agree. They are both sensational actors. I think they brought honesty. They brought total commitment to the characters. They brought a kind of intelligence - emotional intelligence and commitment. And I think many actors would find it difficult to bring.

Forest as a character is a remarkable man. He has a great inner gentleness. Also, he is not just an actor, he has a foundation to deal with conflict resolution. He is engaged socially. And that engagement obviously enables him to connect to the real Tutu and the Tutu that he is constructing.

Eric has an extraordinarily ability to be both kind of a domineering male but also fragile. And that particularly combination is really quite interesting. Not easily achieved but he has the ability to do that. And then putting the two of them together, they began to create a chemistry that comes alive really on the screen in a way that was really quite remarkable. That was a wonderful thing to work with.  It was like working with the finest paints. It was like cooking the finest dish - one just had to get the right ingredients to get the proportion and it was going to cook itself.

You have gotten some incredible performances from actors over the years. In general, what is your process with your actors? 
It's my own process that I kind of developed over the years. It is based on the following premise really, and that is that as human beings, we are made up of our memories. We use memories both to work where we are, where we were and where we might be. In other words, let’s say you are going to do an interview with somebody. All the past interviews you have had quickly play in your head and will bring a certain response in you about how you are going to handle the interview. It comes whether you are going to be a little nervous about it, whether you are going to take it easy or no matter what it might be, and that almost applies to everything in life. Whatever situation, really. Somewhere deep inside you, a very quick comparison happens with all the other times you have been in similar kinds of situations, and that brings the way you behave. It seems to me where I work, I don’t really give actors psychological notes, but I do work with memories. I work with family experiences. I work with dreams. I work with storytelling. I use all kinds of different techniques which are designed to take the actor, without telling him or her exactly where they are going, into a place when they are reacting with other actors and where there will be emotional triggers that will take them by surprise. In other words, they won’t always know exactly what they are going to do in the scene but they trust that something living will happen because they are creating a living person inside of them. That is my job as well as to create a very real world for them -  physically in terms of the sets and where we are shooting, etc.

Why do you think you are attracted to stories that deal with the complexities of forgiveness and healing?
Well, I think those two things are the most crucial part of being a human being. And I think one can never have enough of those stories because that happens to one’s everyday life. I am sure everybody reading this will have all kinds of instances in their life where they find the need to forgive someone or need to be forgiven. It's just the way that life is. The exercise of forgiveness and the ability to ask for forgiveness is a remarkable human attribute, actually. It is a way in, very often to understanding a human being. It is the understanding of history, which is alive. People think history is dead. It isn’t. We are living the results of history in an alive way all the time, even though we are not really conscious of it. Our children will live with the results of the history we are making now, and they won't quite realize it either.

Films of yours such as THE KILLING FIELDS, THE MISSION and CITY OF JOY have dealt with such complex issues. What do you feel is unique about the power of cinema to deliver complex stories to audiences? 
Well I think, movies can take you into a situation where you wouldn’t normally go, and in a way where it plays with your mind and your emotions and make you feel, but at the same time, think. This is how cinema can do remarkably well. Theater can do it too because it is a performance art. Music certainly can do it. The wonderful thing about film is that film is music and theater and visuals all combined in a really extraordinary way. It creates a very, very potent reality. Film is the most powerful way to dream both drama and visuals and music. It fuses all of those things together in a quite remarkable way.

One facet of your films is that they are always amazingly photographed. How important is the photography of a film in delivering the message you want to deliver? 
Well the image is really important because the image is what you are seeing and is in a sense, creating a reality in your mind. As you visualize something, you are asking yourself whether you can make it seem real to yourself. By the magic of cinema, images are visualizing what it is about the places you want to see. The lens, the color, the dynamic inside the shot will tell you a huge amount in the blink of an eye. In fact, all of this is combined with the sound of music, so you can never think of visuals just on their own. The visuals are enhanced enormously by individual sounds or also by music. In fact, it is an interesting test to turn the sound or music off and then look at some famous film images and see how naked pictures are without their soul. The soul of the image is the sound and music and images together. So you could say the visuals provide the body, and music provides the soul and sound.

Do you feel visuals can achieve a special kind of emotional truth? 
I think so. Absolutely. I think the movement and the point of view of the camera can convey something extraordinary because the height of the camera is very, very important. I like to use a lower camera than usual because I like people to watch a movie a little bit of the position of a child looking up to the parents, so it has that kind of wonder that a child has when they are looking up to something. We talk about looking up to something meaning something we are in respect of. So yes, absolutely. The thing that people forget sometimes it is not only the power of the image itself. It is also the movement of camera that is very important. Is it getting closer? Is it going away? Is it circling? Does it stop? How close is it? How high? How low?  All these things are part of the interior in envisioning of what goes inside the audience. The camera puts people into different places. Being put in a different place makes you feel different. 

Do you feel there are moments in film where the score can carry all the weight of a movie? 
I don’t think it can carry all the weight in a movie. What the score can do is encapsulate in  feeling what the movie is about. It makes you think of Lara’s Theme in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.  It has a kind of loneliness and sort of human pain in it, and it expresses something about love that is being destroyed which is what happened with the Soviet Revolution, and with so many other revolutions, like the French Revolution before it.

Music,  if you like, carries emotions from one scene into another, often across the depth. This is why I say that music is like soul to that extent. It doesn’t really carry the theme so much as massage the theme, and remind people of it. It does it subtly and emotionally in conjunction with the images which may be in contrast. Therefore,  it makes the two things work together. Music is incredibly important and powerful.

Your films are also notable for their vivid location work. What do you feel filming on location has added to your work? 
Well, it comes back to the visuals if you like. Location is made up of so many things. It is made up of the light. It is made up of the architecture. It is made up of the vegetation. It is made of the way those things go together. A particular street will carry a particular atmosphere. The light in a particular street, depending on whether it is in Southeast Asia or in the Arctic, will feel very, very different. The light itself behaves different. If there is more moisture in the air, the light softens. If the air is drier, the light gets harder. If there is snow, it gets more reflective and a little whiter, cooler. In that sense, location and light are affecting what you feel. Also, openness. The difference between the kind of shelter that you take under a tree or the kind of danger you get in the jungle, are all expressed through the way the location shows you how the space is organized,  whether it is organized by plants or buildings or the lack of them. All those things bring depth and feeling. Also to the actors, they can do extraordinary things. If the actor is in the studio, he has to work doubly hard to believe he is in a real place. Then say he is in the operating table here in the studio, where we only have two walls - the actor has to kind of deliberately not remember he is in the studio. If he is in a real hospital where the  cameras and all kinds of things are inside it, and he has the actual smell, the actual sounds, and the sense that he is in a real place, it gives the actor a sense of reality that helps him build his character.

You have said that most people live their lives irrationally. Is this something that fascinates you as a filmmaker?
Very much so, because we are so dedicated to reason. What we begin to realize mostly is that we actually rationalize and then use reason to justify what we irrationally did. Reason is a wonderful tool too, though.  Because actually, most stories, are the application of reason to irrationality. In other words, what we think of as story form, narrative form, is actually reason’s attempt to find coherence in things that otherwise appear to be incoherent. The question of whether things are really coherent or incoherent is what we can be talking about  forever. Certainly, in terms of our lives, trying to live a coherent life is probably almost impossible, although it is also very difficult to admit, because we like to feel that we are more rational than we are.

It's almost 35 years since your brilliant debut with THE KILLING FIELDS. What advice would you give to the Roland Joffe about to make that film?
I would say, don’t lose faith. Don’t expect that everything that you do will work out. Love the process. Love the process more than anything else. Love the process more than the approval.

What other projects do you have coming up?
I have a number of projects coming up, but I can’t really talk about them too much. One is set in America. One set in Sicily. One set in India. They are keeping me more occupied than I have the right to be.  I am excited by all three of them.

THE FORGIVEN is out now in select theaters and will be released in more theaters, on VOD and Digital HD on March 16th. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2018. All rights reserved.

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