Risking Light: a journey through grief, compassion, and forgiveness

“That is one of the biggest gifts documentary brings – the ability to hear the story of somebody, which might change your perspective on an issue.”

Image source: 
Kent Truog

Drawn together from the streets of Minneapolis, the Aboriginal lands of Australia, and the killing fields of Cambodia, Risking Light follows the powerful stories of three individuals who have journeyed through grief, to ultimately reach a point of compassion and forgiveness.

Produced by 2015 Emmy Award-winner Dawn Mikkelson, Risking Light is a thought-provoking documentary that explores resilience and the painful process associated with moving through grief.

“I had been making documentary films for about ten years when I started developing Risking Light and I was looking for something to redeem humanity for me, in some ways,” says Mikkelson. “When you work in documentary, you often work on stories regarding ways in which we hurt each other and ways in which things go wrong. I really wanted to find a story which gave me some hope.”

Through the extraordinary stories of Mary Johnson, who mourns a murdered son; Debra Hocking, a victim of government-sanctioned genocide; and Kilong Ung, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, Risking Light challenges its audiences to look to themselves and ask, “Could you forgive the unforgivable?”

“My hope is that people will see the film and reflect on their own lives,” says Mikkelson. “It’s had that impact on me making it – I haven’t experienced the same things that any one of our storytellers have, but throughout the production of the film I was constantly checking in with myself and questioning, ‘What am I holding onto that is no longer serving me?’”

“When I heard their stories, I immediately knew this was a story I wanted to share,” she continues. “I was really compelled by their forgiveness and I felt it was particularly important to look at forgiveness, because as a concept – at least here in the States – it’s often tied very specifically to particular religious beliefs.

“I wanted to explore the idea of forgiveness in multiple cultural and religious contexts, as well as the notion that it’s a universal experience and not confined to one religion.”

While Johnson, Hocking and Ung’s stories all share the same overriding message, they also vary in nature as they each deal with different definitions of forgiveness.

“When I show the film, different audience members will connect to different stories,” says Mikkelson. “That’s one of the other things I find really compelling about their stories – they’re each coming from such a different place, yet arriving at the same location in many ways.”

“Mary is dealing with the murder of a child, which is a very personal and specific situation between two individuals,” she says. “Whereas the stories of Debra and Kilong are much larger government-related, cultural events – there are many more players involved in these stories.”

Prefacing Risking Light, Mikkelson completed several award-winning feature documentaries, all of which celebrate the power and resilience of those who choose not to fall victim to circumstance. In acknowledging a growing lack of alternative perspectives available to us, Mikkelson uses documentary to offer both herself and audiences a fresh view on issues.

“Our social media echo chambers make it so that we only hear from people who agree with us and so we lose that opportunity to hear from people with different perspectives,” she explains. “And I feel that is one of the biggest gifts documentary brings – the ability to hear the story of somebody, which might change your perspective on an issue, or the way you think about things.

“That’s definitely what draws me into documentary,” she continues. “Even if I think that I agree with somebody and believe that I understand them, when I really dig into their story and find out who they are as a person, it alters my thoughts.”

Risking Light will air at Backlot Cinemas, Southbank on Saturday July 14 as part of Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Melbourne Documentary Film Festival runs from Friday July 6 until Saturday July 14 at various venues around Melbourne.