Arts

New documentary cracks the culture of cults

Montreal-based filmmaker Mia Donovan is completely frank when talking about her latest film, Deprogrammed: "In the end, nothing was clear."

Montreal filmmaker Mia Donovan explores the controversial phenomenon with 'Deprogrammed'

Deprogrammed (Eye Steel Film)

Mia Donovan is completely frank when talking about her latest film, Deprogrammed. "In the end, nothing was clear," the Montreal-based filmmaker told CBC Arts.

Such a result isn't too shocking when given the topic Donovan took on. Deprogrammed goes deep into the process of deprogramming people from cults, a practice that dates back to the 1960s but gained a great deal of publicity after people wrote first-hand accounts in the 1970s and 1980s. It's an astonishing film, full of bizarre and disturbing anecdotes about cults and people's efforts to help family members break out of them.

And Donovan had her own connection to the story. In the 1990s, her stepbrother Matthew became very immersed in heavy metal culture and music. His parents were disturbed, to the point where they actually paid a deprogramming expert to set Matthew on to what they considered a better path — for the fee of $25,000.

Donovan was skeptical about whether or not such a process was a good thing for her stepbrother, and that feeling hasn't changed. She decided to go back to Matthew and to the man who deprogrammed him — as well as a host of other people who had been involved in cults — to explore the strange and often controversial phenomenon.

Donovan's stepbrother's own story had a pretty significant connection: he was "deprogrammed" by Ted Patrick, a man who became famous for the speed and efficiency at which he could help those in cults be pulled out of them. And lucky for Donovan, Patrick — now in his eighties — agreed to be interviewed for the film.

Ted Patrick in Deprogrammed (Eye Steel Film)

This is emotional, heady stuff: family members turning other family members in for what were often gruelling, exhausting interrogation sessions while being forcibly detained. And what's most astonishing about Donovan's documentary is the way in which it leaves the audience open to such incredible questions. Rather than offer any easy answers, Deprogrammed reveals what an incredibly mysterious practice this is, often as murky as the cults themselves. Alongside Matthew's story is an interview with a man who praises Patrick for saving his life. "If it weren't for what Ted did," he tells the camera. "I would still be with the Moonies." He tells us, in his own testimonial, that he feels Patrick saved his life.

The film marks a shift in direction for Donovan, whose first feature, Inside Lara Roxx (2011), told the story of a Quebec porn starlet who contracted HIV while working in California. With that critically-acclaimed film, Donovan managed to tell an extremely sensational story while remaining entirely respectful of her subject — no small feat in nonfiction filmmaking, where exploitation is widespread. With Deprogrammed, Donovan says a huge part of the challenge was making sure that everyone she interviewed had their stories told accurately and respectfully. "Getting access to people was tricky," she recalls. "Many didn't want to be interviewed, and I had to gain their trust. Very few jumped at the opportunity to be in this film. That made the editing process even more difficult: these people had trusted me to tell their experience. Each story was unique, and many were contradictory, with some praising their deprogramming and others denouncing it. I wanted the film to stay true to everyone."

Ultimately, Donovan says, "There was no way I could take any one perspective and make that the standpoint of the entire film. It's the only way I could make it — to lay all of these stories out and let the audience decide for themselves. This is a subject there is no easy recipe for. If there is a message of the film, it is that there are no easy answers."

Deprogrammed. Directed by Mia Donovan. 85 min. Opens Friday, June 17. Cinémathèque Québécoise, Montreal.

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