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Despite its sunny title, Love Wins Over Hate is not always easy to watch. During its 57-minute run time, six people, all former members of extremist groups, tell their stories. The details of their mindsets, words they used, and people they harassed are frank and excruciating. “The hardest part of my transformation was, and remains, self-forgiveness. And that’s a struggle I’ll be on for the rest of my life,” Arno Michaelis, former lead singer of a race-metal band spreading messages of white supremacy, says at the beginning of the film. “I never want to let myself off the hook for the people I’ve hurt.”
Yet each subject escaped the spiral of prejudice and violence, and, in many cases, went on to help others leave extremist groups. Susan Polis Schutz, the filmmaker behind production company IronZeal Films, made Love Wins Over Hate, premiering on Denver PBS Channel 12 on October 8 at 7 p.m., to try and understand both the roots of hate and how to escape it. From her part-time home in California (she splits time between the Golden State and Colorado), Schutz told 5280 about her filmmaking process, her response to President Donald Trump’s infamous Proud Boys debate comment, and the best editing advice from her son, Gov. Jared Polis.
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5280: How long has Love Wins Over Hate been in the works?
Susan Polis Schutz: I started it a little over a year ago. I felt an urgency to get it out, so I had fortunately concluded all my interviews before March. Usually at that point, I work with my editor David Emrich, who is based in Denver. I’ve been quarantining in California, and he couldn’t come here, and I couldn’t go there. So every day, we edited down the 50 hours of interviews via Skype. It was really hard, but we got it done.
What caused that sense of urgency?
Every morning, I watch the news and scroll through social media while I drink my coffee, and I can see all this hatred and anger and divisiveness. It makes me really sad to see what’s happening in our beautiful world. It’s being ruined. And then I just wanted to know why people hated so much. Why people are so vitriolic? Why do we not respect all people? And that’s kind of when the idea for the film came to me.
Once you realized you wanted to explore this topic, what was your starting point?
My first thought was to talk to people who are prejudiced. And that bombed. Everyone I spoke to said they’re not prejudiced, then they turned it around and said I was prejudiced. So, then I had to figure out another way to do it. I had read an article about a former violent white supremacist [Christian Picciolini] who left the movement, and not only changed himself, but helped hundreds of other people change. And then I wanted to know more about this guy’s life, and it was so fascinating that it led me to interview about 20 other extremists.
How do you approach talking to someone who has been involved with extremism?
Before I interviewed any of them, I was truly scared. I had only read how horrible they were. When I met them, every one of them was so kind and thoughtful and empathetic and compassionate. I was shocked. So, I absolutely wasn’t afraid anymore, and I kind of became their friends. We stay in contact. I adore them, and it’s hard, because I had to forgive their past, just like they had to forgive their past. And in some ways, I don’t forgive them, and they don’t forgive themselves, for what they did. But they changed so dramatically and have actually helped way more people than they hurt.
The first part of the movie features former extremists telling their story. And then in the middle, you focus on people who would have been folks these extremists would have victimized. Why did you want to set it up that way?
What I felt was missing was a section about how horrible it feels to be the victim of prejudice. I didn’t want to forget about the victims. So I interviewed some people from marginalized groups, including three from Colorado: State Representative Leslie Herod, [Colorado Muslim Leadership Council member] Nadeen Ibrahim, and Nicole Garcia, [the first transgender person and person of color to serve as a minister the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America].
We just had a big moment on the debate stage, in which Donald Trump failed to denounce white supremacy. After making this movie, what is your perspective on that?
Oh, it was devastating. I’m still reeling from it, as I think the whole country is. Not criticizing white supremacy is just—it’s evil. It’s evil, and it’s dangerous. And I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons why there’s been such an uptick of hatred now. Our leaders have to come out against hate, or people will follow that hate in the words. It’s just so much more acceptable recently to be so hateful.
Are you concerned that Trump’s decision not to condemn white supremacy is going to embolden extremists?
Of course. Especially people that follow him. If he says it’s OK, it’s OK with them. It’s kind of like the coronavirus. Trump was mocking Biden for wearing a mask, he wouldn’t wear a mask, and now he’s tested positive. If you tell people it’s OK to do something, or just don’t condemn it, people are going to follow. It’s very, very sad.
I’m curious, has your son [Gov. Jared Polis] seen the film yet?
He watches all my films before they air. When they’re in halfway decent shape, he looks at them and makes suggestions, absolutely.
What was the best suggestion Gov. Polis had for you with Love Wins Over Hate?
He was confused by the section about Tim Kurek, the religious guy that went to Liberty University. And he was so right, I didn’t portray Tim’s transformation well, it just was really unclear. I went back and redid the section. You know, it’s very hard sometimes, to edit yourself. You really need someone to criticize. But Jared loves it. Because he’s very, very inclusive. He’s just always believed, his whole life, in accepting people.
What do you hope people take away from this movie?
That people can change, and how that change happens. The common thread from everyone that changed was once they met somebody from the group that they hated, they realized you can’t hate somebody when you’re sitting down talking to them. You can’t combat hate and violence with more hate and violence. You have to do it, in a sense, with love. I think it was trying to give hope to people that things can get better.
Watch it: Love Wins Over Hate airs on Denver PBS Channel 12 on October 8 at 7 p.m. MT and October 9 at 12 a.m. MT, as well as Rocky Mountain PBS at 8 p.m. MT.