NEW YORK — “Healing From Hate: Battle For The Soul of a Nation” wants a lot from its audience: It asks us to accept that people truly can change. Most of us believe in second chances, but hold firm to the “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” rule. When it comes to people covered in swastika tattoos, that “fool me once” may not even be an option.
But this documentary, which just had its debut on November 13 at the prestigious DOC NYC festival in New York, is nothing if not earnest. It follows a group of ex-skinheads who have taken it as their mission to make amends the only way they know how: helping others leave the white nationalist movement.
The film goes in the trenches with members from Life After Hate, an organization that essentially makes house calls to skinheads trying to return to society. The stories may enrage you at first but, perhaps, you’ll come out the other end with hope, and maybe even some understanding.
Director Peter Hutchinson does not downplay the dangers. The footage from Charlottesville, Virginia, some of which I’d never seen before, is devastating, as are the cavalier comments from hatemongers such as Richard B. Spencer. Things are bad and getting worse. But when the anti-hate activists get in with someone on a one-to-one level, the film shows how humanity can still be found lurking within many that seem, initially, to be beyond hope.
The film will travel around the festival circuit before eventually ending up on a streaming service. (There are no distribution announcements to make currently.) I spoke with Hutchinson just after the New York screening. An edited transcript is below.
There is so much about this film that is “of the now.” And yet, in an age of “cancel culture,” forgiveness is not a trendy thing, currently.
There’s a lot of tribalism right now. Certain people in higher political offices, without going too far down this road, have definitely fanned those flames, and not done enough to help the nation deal with those issues. This film tries to be something of an antidote to the “us vs. them” dialogue.
There are not many optimistic or hopeful outcomes when you speak about people in the white nationalist movement. The subjects of my film are on the front lines. These anti-hate activists are doing the boots-on-the-ground work in a compassionate and non-judgmental way. It is an old school approach. It’s even biblical, in a way.
It is an old school approach. It’s even biblical, in a way
We’re a year away from an election and it will be an incredibly contentious year. The ADL [Anti-Defamation League] just announced that for the fifth year in a row hate crimes are on the rise. There has been no cessation and next year can be a real shit show. The approach shown in the film is one of the few that works.
Well, the line in the film that struck me is “to stop venom you need anti-venom.” The only way to really connect with a white supremacist is someone who understands those beliefs in their bones. I’m a Jew! I can’t tell someone not to be an anti-Semite. But for someone to say, “I was once like you,” it is different.
It’s Frank Meeink’s line, the guy that the movie “American History X” is based on. These guys have the insight because they know how people are recruited and how the pull is rarely ideological. It is usually about a young man’s need for identity and belonging to a higher purpose. The ideology usually comes after.
His description of curing the cobra bite is right on, because they’ve taken the journey themselves. Also, these older guys were doing it on their own. That’s why they’ve created this organization. They all have hard tales about leaving the movement — long periods alone, assassination attempts. They walked away from everything. There’s the discussion of how, when they are used to people looking at them like they are a neo-Nazi and a piece of shit, it’s hard to look at yourself another way.
Tony McAleer, another key person, talks about looking for a sense of community after he left the movement. Either down at a local pub or wherever, then someone would find out about his past and the bar owner would ask him not to come back again. So that’s what some people don’t understand. These people leave everything behind when they leave the movement, their livelihoods, their identity. There are parallels to recovery networks for drug and alcohol.
Have you experienced feedback from some people who are reluctant to even entertain the thought of forgiveness?
Sure. And there are many groups that will have problems with this film. Not everyone is into second chances or recognizing the humanity in another person. And I gotta say, this leaves us in a dark and hopeless place. Whether it is a drug addict or a gang member or an ex-convict, if we’re going to write off an entire sector of humanity who has made mistakes then we are in trouble.
You find humanity in yourself when you find compassion for people that have made bad decisions or struggled to find their identity. I had this conversation yesterday about antifa, and we were both saying, hey, when I was in my 20s and very active and progressive, I could have found myself in an antifa group. I was very angry and needed a place to put that. And it isn’t that different, in that specific way, with the flip side, with people in the white nationalism movement. They are finding identity and belonging by being in the group; they have their outlet. So, I don’t feel like antifa is the antidote for hate and racism, I feel like they are not the way to go.
This goes back to the point before, mentioning drug addiction. Your film describes hate as an addition, like heroin. You need your fix. Misery loves company. I get this on a small level. Sometimes, when I am feeling low, I will watch a pundit I abhor, like Sean Hannity, just to get angry. Why the hell do I do this? Where does this psychological need come from?
We all have anger. But we all need to find creative and positive outlets for it. Anger can be important. We need to listen to anger, but it’s about how we act on it.
There are some people who argue that with the rise of psychotherapy we’ve taken a culture and turned it inward with a narcissistic intent. A lot of that existential angst that maybe got worked out in a public forum, when unions and labor were more active, when politics took place in the streets, a lot of that doesn’t exist anymore. And I think those outlets that existed in the teens, 20s and 30s were good outlets that led to constructive change.
Now we sit around and watch Fox News and throw shit at the TV, maybe spew something on Facebook, thinking this is part of the political process. It’s not.
Regarding addiction, I used to work with people in recovery and there is a template of “people, places and things.” These are triggers of behavior. You need to change the people, places and things, and it is the exact same thing with hate groups. It’s all about the community and where you are hanging out with them, what gives you a sense of belonging. You need to walk away from all of it.
Richard B. Spencer shows up in your film. It wasn’t too long ago where he made an attempt at being “presentable.” He wore nice suits, maybe softened his language to appear reasonable. It has since been revealed he’s as terrifying a Nazi as many suspected. What was your vibe meeting him?
He’s fascinating. He’s very much the evolution of the alt-right, the main figurehead, if there were one. In the film, Tony McAleer talks about moving from wearing Doc Martens and a shaved head and beating the shit out of people to wearing a jacket and tie to go on talk shows. Spencer is that arrival incarnate.
And it dovetails a lot with Trump.
Your film makes a very clear case to a potential skeptic that, yes, perhaps Donald Trump may not be a racist or anti-Semite himself, but it is undeniable that a great many of his supporters are. It remains stupefying to me that many in the Jewish community will still look the other way on this. They say “well, he moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem” as if that mitigates the passion that neo-Nazis have for this man. Do you have a comment on that?
I do. And I am also reticent to get too deep into it with an Israeli news outlet. But, as you rightly point out, there is a tremendous conflict with Jewish-Americans supporting Trump. Unequivocally, Trump has shown racist tendencies and has been slow to condemn anti-Semitic activities. It is disturbing.
Unequivocally, Trump has shown racist tendencies and has been slow to condemn anti-Semitic activities
But there’s politics involved. Obviously, Trump is a friend to the State of Israel, from a strategic point of view. It’s a paradox. But that’s what is difficult about these issues, there are paradoxes everywhere, and why “us vs. them” arguments aren’t helpful. Nothing in life or history is that simple.
You are not Jewish, correct?
Correct. But my wife is and therefore my son is.
The film gets into another great point: prison as an incubator. A young person can get arrested for stealing car parts, go in for a few months, come out a neo-Nazi. Is there any attempt that you are aware of to try and stop the tribalism inside prisons?
Talking to these guys who were in prison tells me that it is very entrenched and not much is being done to address it. One guy in the film even says that if he ends up back in prison he’s going to have to join back up. That’s how he’ll need to survive.
It’s the community, the identity first, then the ideology
It’s the ideal place for initial recruitment. Another guy says, “I wasn’t racist before I went in, I had black friends on the outside,” but he had to pair up with the white power guys out of pressure. Then you hang out with them, walking the walk, talking the talk and eventually you start thinking like them. The ideology comes later. That’s such an important thing. It’s the community, the identity first, then the ideology.
And so many of the people in your film are from broken homes, or were abused as children.
It’s mostly young, vulnerable people. Some are lucky and find a path like music or sports. This comes up all the time. A teenager is “looking for their people” and that’s how they fall into an organization. We do a disservice by not being honest about this. It could be anything. They could have joined a chess club if the right guy came along.
It sounds like a joke, but “follow the Grateful Dead” or “go to a Star Trek convention” —
Then there’s, of course, the biggie, which is religion.
Go to church, go to temple, to go a mosque or an ashram. Just hope whichever religious teacher you pick isn’t too intolerant, or that leads, I guess, to a whole other documentary.
That is a whole other documentary, yes.