Docs To Watch: Inside Cults and Closed Communities
This week, we're showing CPH:DOX winner Songs of Repression, filmed in an idyllic German colony in Chile - formerly the infamous 'Colonia Dignidad', a religious community marked by brutal physical and sexual abuse, founded by notorious leader Paul Schafer.
In his Screen Daily review, Allan Hunter points out that directors Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga focus on the effects of the past on the community's remaining inhabitants today: "[The directors] eschew the traditional elements of a documentary looking to illuminate the past. There is no footage of the Schafer years at Colonia Dignidad; no home movies, newspaper headlines or television reports; no photos of Schafer and his fate... Their focus is on the here and now and the legacy of his reign."
This got us thinking about different ways that filmmakers have approached the stories of closed communities, sects and cults, particularly when there's a distrust of outsiders. This list includes films made by former members themsleves, by dogged investigators and by embedded filmmakers. They steer away from salacious voyeurism and offer interesting perspectives on, more often than not, deeply disturbed communities and their leaders.
Faith / Valentina Pedicini / Italy / 2019 / 93 mins
Unlike many of the films on this list, Faith focuses on a current community, which has only existed for a couple of decades - the 'Warriors of Light'. Director Valentina Pedicini brings us into the closed society of this Italian, kung-fu practising sect by immersing herself, and the viewer, wholly and intensely into the small, isolated community. Through long, beautifully textured shots, Pedicini reveals a distinctly troubling world of ritual, extreme physical exertion and devotion.
In this interview with Cinema Femme, Pedicini alluded to the devotion required by herself and the crew for this immersive approach: "We have been following the group for about three, four months. We have been observing them for about 16-17 hours a day in the hope of filming one or two good takes. During that period, we were staying in a small apartment where our production could continue. We could re-watch our footage, take stock of the day and try to improve our work step by step."
An exceptional and promising director, Valentina Pedicini died in 2020, aged just 42, less than a year after Faith premiered.
You can watch Faith on MUBI
Holy Hell / William Allen / USA / 2015 / 100 mins
After graduating from college, young idealist William Allen joined a spiritual community filled with like-minded people all looking for some answers to the basic questions of life and led by a charismatic but secretive guru. Camera in hand, Allen documented 20 years of living inside this community, showing how his idealism began to unravel as more is revealed about the true nature of this cult.
With decades of primary footage, and documenting his own experience within the community, in Holy Hell William Allen offers an unprecedented insight into the world of the Buddhafield cult.
You can watch Holy Hell on YouTube or Amazon Prime.
My Fathers, My Mother and Me / Paul-Julien Robert / Austria / 2012 / 95 mins
In 1972, Otto Muehl founded a controversial commune in Friedrichshof, Austria, based on common property ownership, free love and liberation from family ties. In order to break with the nuclear family model entirely, the children of the commune were never to know the identity of their biological fathers and were cared for communally.
As with William Allen directing Holy Hell, above, Paul-Julien Robert tells this story from his first-person experience, but Robert has his own unique perspective: he was born into the commune and in My Fathers, My Mother and Me, he revisits the place where he spent the first twelve, formative years of his life.
Robert's quietly devastating film draws on an extensive archive of footage and penetrating interviews with his mother, former members and other children born into this social experiment, to reveal the true nature of one of the most famous sex communes in the world, and the deep-rooted debilitating effects it had on its members.
You can watch the doc on DaFilms, Vimeo On Demand; Amazon Prime
Going Clear / Alex Gibney / USA / 2014 / 120 mins
My Scientology Movie / John Dower / UK / 2016 / 99 mins
Next, a pair of films investigating Scientology.
Unlike the communities in the films above, the Church of Scientology is a well-funded, well-established, global organisation. It's protected, and it's near impossible to view it from the inside.
Alex Gibney's Going Clear profiles eight former members of the Church, and looks into its history and practices, telling a provocative tale of ego and exploitation with Gibney's trademark detailed, informative, pulling-no-punches investigative style.
In My Scientology Movie, Louis Theroux takes a different approach. When his requests to enter the Church of Scientology headquarters are turned down, he enlists the help of former members-turned-whistleblowers and sets about using actors to recreate incidents people claim to have experienced within the Church.
There are twists and turns, some jaw-dropping encounters and a good dose of humour.
Two films radically different in tone, both grappling to get an insight into a vast and well-protected organisation - Going Clear and My Scientology Movie make a fascinating Church of Scientology double bill... but don't watch just before bedtime!
Wild Wild Country / 2018 / dir. Chapman and Maclain Way / prod. Jay and Mark Duplass
In the grand landscape of non-fiction storytelling, the 'documentary series' is a relatively new phenomenon. Wild Wild Country, the Netflix series which tells the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers in Wasco County, Oregon, is one of the most successful - popular with both audiences and critics.
The series format allows directors Chapman and Maclain Way and producers Jay and Mark Duplass to shape a complicated and multifaceted story, expressing many viewpoints and raising critical questions. Over six epidosdes, they explore the cult from the inside, talking to former members, and also the effects on the wider community, who reacted against their presence in Wasco County.
Watch the series on Netflix.