Helen Whitney

Filmmaker Helen Whitney was a fellow in the Institute in March 2010. The Institute hosted the screening of Whitney’s film “Forgiveness,” part of a four-hour PBS series which will air nationally in the fall.  

As a fellow in the Institute Whitney spent time with students in classes on Media Studies and Field Production. In addition she held one-on-one sessions with students who are interested in careers in film. “Forgiveness; A Time to Love and a Time to Hate,” a four-hour PBS series that explores the complexities of forgiveness. 

Although  forgiveness is a theological concern central to every major religion, it is changing and there is no consensus about what it is and what it is becoming. It has left the pulpit and hit the fractious streets. It is at the heart of the therapy hour, of restorative justice and pioneering 12 step programs that offer the possibility of authentic change. Self help forgiveness books fill the shelves at Barnes and Noble.

There are websites hawking confessions in a cyberworld that promises freedom from guilt but little personal accountability.  Forgiveness dominates afternoon television where our new priests offer quick absolution.

This new forgiveness is immodest and sweeping in its reach. It is not only ready to heal individuals, but corporations, churches and even nations. It is part of the language of human rights hearings, it drives truth and reconciliation commissions across the world and it shapes the tsunami of public apologies – the sublime and the ridiculous.

Inevitably its new role in the world raises serious and complex questions. Why is it in the air today? What is its power, its limitations and in some instances its dangers? Has it been cheapened or deepened? Or both? What does it say about us and the times we live in?

In our exploration of these questions, we cover a wide range of stories, from emotional betrayal and physical violence to a nation’s struggle to reconcile after genocide.

Act One, forgiveness in the private realm, will air on the first night. Among the stories that we focus on  in the opening two hours: the Amish unconditional forgiveness that immediately followed the shooting at the Nickel Mines schoolhouse – and the Jewish response to it;  the 1960’s era radical, Kathy Power who  struggled to understand and to atone for the consequences of her violent revolutionary actions; the destructive consequences of a too easy forgiveness offered by a young woman who was the victim of a brutal assault; the forgiveness that “saved the life” of an AIDS victim.

Forgiveness and its close cousins, reconciliation and apology have an ever growing political dimension; they have migrated into the lives of nations.

In Act Two, forgiveness in the political realm, we explore a range of stories across the world: Among them: Germany’s penitential journey;  Rwanda’s genocide and attempts to reconcile; South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission, Australia’s recent and remarkably well-thought through apology to its Aborigines; Turkey’s failure to acknowledge and apologize to Armenians.

Helen Whitney has worked as a producer, director, and writer for documentaries and feature films since 1971.

Her documentary work has appeared on ABC's "Closeup" and PBS's American Masters, as well as on FRONTLINE. Her documentaries have ranged over a wide variety of subjects, among them: youth gangs, presidential candidates, the mentally ill, a Trappist Monastery, Pope John Paul II, the class structure of Great Britain, homosexuals, and the photographer Richard Avedon. Whitney maintains a passionate personal interest in the religious journey.

Her 90-minute ABC News "Closeup" documentary, "The Monastery," about the Cistercians in Spencer, Mass., left her searching for other projects about spiritual life. This passion was also evident in FRONTLINE's "John Paul II: The Millennial Pope", a film for which she and her team conducted more than 800 interviews in six countries.

Whitney's documentaries and features have received many honors, including an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, an Oscar nomination, the Humanitas Award, and the prestigious duPont-Columbia Journalism Award.

In the past, she has been:
  • Feature Director for American Playhouse, HBO, ABC, Group W, The Odyssey Project.
  • Documentary Director, Producer and Writer for PBS and Turner Broadcasting.
  • Documentary Director, Producer and Writer for ABC Close- Up
  • Associate Editor, The New York Times, 'Arts and Leisure' Section
  • Researcher and Associate Producer, NBC White Paper Series
  • Instructor in Victorian Literature, Roosevelt University, Chicago