SEX, DRUGS AND CULTS

Elma Cremin

Co-Founder at Followthethread
A long-time fixture of New York’s glittering social scene, Miami’s jai lai courts, and the interstate highway system’s “big rigs,” Elma Cremin has spent her life absorbing all things pop culture.Movies, cult tv shows, documentaries, art, fashion—you cut her and she’ll bleed out in the colors of an Andy Warhol Brillo Pad box. Finally, after years of working inside the system with such networks as Sundance, Trio, Fuse TV and Ovation, she went “ghost protocol” and co-founded FollowTheThread in order to work outside the petty restraints of the industry and share her remarkable knowledge.

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Cults hold a deep fascination for us here at The Thread. What is it that drives somebody to give his/her life over to one of these groups and follow their Guru blindly to whatever fate he assigns them?

The word “cult” once had a more benign meaning. It was given its modern American twist by sociologist Howard Becker in 1932. Paradoxically, cults proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s—in an era of rebellion and reform, some people reacted by seeking the solace of absolute submission to the will of a charismatic leader.  

Brainwashing is a literal translation of a Chinese term – the cult indoctrinates members using techniques designed to eradicate their sense of identity, replacing their own personalities and characteristics with those dictated by the group’s guru. 

This week’s Holy Hell is the latest in a long line of documentaries that explore what happens inside these groups.

holy-hell-sundance-2016-ss04 HOLY HELL (2016) 

Directed by Will Allen, a film school graduate who in 1985 became a member of The Buddhafield, a Los Angeles area spiritual group. Also acting as the group’s official videographer, he began to document their activities which centered on the mysterious leader they called Michel, or The Teacher.

Over time, the group’s dark side began to surface as total devotion edged to paranoia. Eventually unexpected truths about their enlightened leader were revealed—all in front of Allen’s camera.

The result is an incredible 22-year archive of video footage which became the basis for HOLY HELL. After finally leaving the group, Allen turns the camera on himself and asks fellow ex-cult members to come to terms with their past and the unbelievable deceit they experienced.

iTunes

 

Jonestown JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE PEOPLES TEMPLE (2006)

Stanley Nelson’s terrifying documentary about the enigmatic cult leader Jim Jones.  The documentary tells the story of the people who followed Jim Jones from Indiana to California and finally to the remote jungles of Guyana, South America in a misbegotten quest to build an ideal society.

On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 members of Peoples Temple died in the largest mass suicide in history – spawning the ironic pop culture catchphrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”. The film attempts to unravel the mystery of why so many people would blindly follow Jones’ lead.

The doc features interviews with former members, Jonestown survivors, and people who knew Jones throughout his life. The film does a superlative  job of telling the Peoples Temple’s fascinating story in an engaging, and incredibly frightening, way.

Netflix    Amazon    YouTube

 

thecultTHE CULT AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2007)

Ben Anthony directs this documentary about the cult Lord of Our Righteous Church, also known as Strong City, whose members operate in New Mexico. Their leader Wayne Bent (aka Michael Travesser) claims that God appeared in his living room in June 2000 and told him, “You are the Messiah.” OK, we get that – but what is surprising is that he found a group of people who actually believe him!

The film focuses on Bent’s announcement that the Day of Judgment would begin on October 31, 2007 and explores the origins of the cult and their specific beliefs. Needless to say the Day of Judgment passes without incident.

Bent has since been convicted of one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, but his conviction was overturned in 2011. The NM attorney general is appealing the decision.

https://vimeo.com/134416313

 

going-clearGOING CLEAR (2015)

Directed by Alex Gibney, based on the book by Lawrence Wright, Going Clear profiles eight former members of the Church of Scientology–whose prominent adherents include A-list Hollywood celebrities–shining a light on how the church cultivates true believers, detailing their experiences and what they are willing to do in the name of religion.

One of the most talked about films at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, this powerful documentary highlights the Church’s origins, from its roots in the mind of founder L. Ron Hubbard to its rise in popularity in Hollywood and beyond. Going Clear is a provocative tale of ego, exploitation, and lust for power.

Vudu

 

sourceTHE SOURCE FAMILY

Directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulo. Set in 1972 Los Angeles—during a time of social upheaval, radical fervor, and the rise of new religions across the country.

The Source Family considered themselves an “Aquarian tribe,” a secretive but eccentric group of 140 beautiful people, devotees of Father Yod:  a restaurateur-turned-spiritual leader who had 14 wives, drove a Rolls Royce and led his own rock band. The Family were local legends. By day, they operated the Source restaurant, which served organic cuisine to John Lennon, Warren Beatty and many prominent Hollywood figures.

Behind closed doors in their Hollywood Hills mansion, the Family would convene and meditate under the guidance of Father Yod. He initiated sons and daughters into a variety of extreme practices, which began to garner adverse attention from local authorities.

The Family fled to Hawaii in 1974. Then on August 25, 1975, despite having no previous hang-gliding experience, Father Yod lept off a 1,300-foot cliff on the eastern shore of Oahu and crash-landed on the beach. Even though he suffered no visible injuries, he was unable to move and died nine hours later.

iTunes   Netflix    Amazon

 

prophetPROPHETS PREY (2015)

Amy Berg directs this chilling documentary about Warren Jeffs, Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints.

When he took control of the church it was already rife with polygamous and underage marriages. But Jeffs managed to expand those practices and the power of his position in unprecedented ways. He further muddied the murky distinction between sister wife and ecclesiastical rape, and ended up discarding the sect’s wobbly moral compass for a pure cult of personality.

The film examines Jeffs’ life and shows how he became the worshipped and adored Prophet.

Despite a trail of abuse and ruined lives, Warren has maintained his grip on power. Mr. Jeffs is said to be running the FLDS from his jail cell:  as many as 10,000 members continue to follow his teachings. For a while he occupied a place on the FBI’s most-wanted list between Osama bin Laden and James “Whitey” Bulger. But capturing the criminal hasn’t put an end to the crime.

http://www.sho.com/sho/reality-docs/titles/3423887/prophets-prey#/index

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Kris

Can't decide what to watch?FollowTheThread.
Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
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A couple weeks ago we raved about Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone.  So when we saw he had a new film coming out out – Dheepan – we knew we’d have to build a post around it. 

 One of the things that made us fall in love with drama is the way it makes the world of surfaces come alive.  Emotions, motivations, character – it renders the invisible visible. 

 When it comes to movies about immigrants, the effect is quite literal.  We may hear about these people, but we seldom see them at all — let alone as individual human beings. Which only makes these movies all the more heart wrenching.     

  

Dheepan
DHEEPAN (2015)

A refugee camp in Sri Lanka.  A defeated Tamil Tiger (played by an actual Tamil child soldier, Antonythasan Jesuthasan)  realizes he will never get a visa alone, so he buys the passports of a dead family and convinces a random woman and girl to masquerade as his wife and daughter.

The ruse works, and they find themselves living in the gang-controlled Paris projects.  Now he has a new name, Dheepan, he manages to wins a job as caretaker.  The three struggle to live with people they barely know, and simultaneously adjust to an utterly foreign culture.  No matter how hard he tries to just keep his head down, he can’t escape the violence around him.

By the end the film devolves a bit into a melodramatic thriller… but what has come before is affecting enough that the film won the Palm d’Or last year anyway.

YouTube 

 

 

La Haine
LA HAINE (1995)

The issue of assimilation has been growing for decades, and as bad as it sometimes is in the U.S., it’s even thornier in like France with its proud cultural heritage.

Twenty years later, La Haine is still relevant.  And riveting – it picks you up and doesn’t set you down until the end credits roll.

When La Haine came out, Matthieu Kassovitz was being compared to Spike Lee.  Like Do The Right Thing, La Haine anchored social issues from the news in specific realities of place and character.

The movie — pointedly shot in hand-held black-and-white — is the story of three young friends from a suburban high-rise ghetto or “banlieue”.  An Arab, an African and a Jew, they travel into the unfamiliar heart of Paris on the night of a riot against the police.

In ’95 La Haine was controversial.  Anti-police was the charge, though to us it’s sobering, but deliberately unpolitical.

And now that Islam has been radicalized it seems old-fashioned and almost optimistic.  A generation later it’s doubtful those three kids with their diverse ethnic backgrounds could ever be friends, let alone hang out together in public.

Like many of our picks this week, this one is a little hard to find:

Amazon hulu iTunes

 

 

In This World
IN THIS WORLD
(2002)

 Michael Winterbottom is the versatile British director of Palme d’Or contenders like Welcome to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People.

After he finished Party People, Winterbottom set out to make this grueling quasi-documentary.  Strictly speaking, it’s actually more drama than documentary — it was cast and it the story was structured in outline.  But the dialogue was improvised, the characters are played by non-actors, and Winterbottom shot it guerrilla-style as his characters made the actual journey depicted in the film – including dicey nighttime border crossings through mountains patrolled by armed soldiers.

Two Afghan cousins, Jamal and Enayatullah, set out from a refugee camp in northern Pakistan.  They are funded by Enayatullah’s father, but Jamal is sent along because he knows some English and is more resourceful than his older cousin.  Along the way they encounter relentless cupidity and horror.  In the end, only one of them makes it.

It amazes us that we couldn’t find this one anywhere downloadable.  It’s only available on DVD.

AmazonNetflix DVD

 

 

Dirty Pretty Things
DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (2002)

 The same year that Winterbottom made his refugee film, that other endlessly talented and restless British director, Stephen Frears, made a movie about immigration that is very different but equally harrowing.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Okwe, a Nigerian doctor who has been forced to flee Africa, leaving a daughter behind.  He landed in London, and now he sleepwalks round the clock through menial jobs — by day a limo driver and by night a hotel clerk.  He crashes on a couch rented from another hotel worker, a Turkish Muslim refugee, played unexpectedly but well by Audrey Tatou.

One night goes to unclog a toilet and pulls out a human heart.  “Sneaky” the Mephistophelean Spanish night manager at the hotel is trafficking in human organs, and tries to draw Okwe into his ring.

If the plot sounds over-the-top, it might have been in other hands; but Frears handles it deftly, maintaining both the tension of the thriller plot and a visceral sense of the underground hell these characters inhabit.

YouTube Amazon Google Play Vudu iTunes

 

 

Amreeka
AMREEKA (2009)

It’s easy to forget that many immigrant stories are driven by hope, not despair.

This first feature by Cherien Dabis, a self described bisexual Muslim from Ohio could have been an angry jeremiad on American prejudice – but instead it is irrepressible warm-hearted and funny.

Israeli Palestinian actress Nisreen Faour plays Muna, who wins the green card lottery and moves to the US at the urging of her teenage son.  They arrive in Illinois in 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq.  Customs officials confiscate a cookie tin with her life savings in it, and then loses a bank job to prejudice, ending ends up at a White Castle.  Meanwhile her son is bullied at school.  But through it all, Muna remains buoyant and irrepressible.

The movie draws on Dabis own childhood experiences from — especially the ugly stereotyping that went on during the first Gulf War. We’re always astonished that a country of immigrants can turn so heartlessly xenophobic to the next wave.  And so it’s equally astonishing that someone who’s seen that kind of irrational prejudice can make a movie that is so open-hearted, charming and upbeat.

Amreeka was nominated for a slew of Independent Spirit awards, including Best Film, Best New Director, and Best Actress — but it’s the hardest of this week’s group to find online.

Netflix DVD Amazon

 

 

A Better Life
A BETTER LIFE (2011)

Any collection of immigrant movies in pre-wall America would be incomplete without one set in L.A.

Immigrant films tend to fall into two categories: first films (Amreeka; Cary Fukumaga’s Sin Nombre); or “passion pieces” from established directors. A Better Life was a surprising departure for writer/director Chris Weitz, who comes from an old Hollywood family and has worked with his brother Paul on films like American Pie and About A Boy, and on blockbusters like The Golden Compass and New Moon (Twilight saga).

This small story of an illegal immigrant gardener and his American born son is less surprising for its story than in its setting — LA neighborhoods that seldom make it into the big releases.  And equally for its low-key execution.

The central character is played by Demián Bichir (Weeds, The Bridge), a hard-working single father who tries to improve his situation as a hourly worker by borrowing the cash to buy a gardening business.  The plot parallels Italian classic The Bicycle Thief – the truck is stolen and father and son set out to try to retrieve it.

Like many of these films, the attraction here is not the plot twists.  God is in the details — and the casting, especially Bichir who discarded his blithe charm and movie star looks — and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.

We especially like the irony of the Bechir’s final line, as he heads back North “a casa”.  To home.

Google Play YouTube iTunes Amazon Vudu