We’ve all seen those lists: “10 Cult films you have to watch!!!”, “5 of the best cult films ever!!!”, “You’re not a true film-lover until you’ve seen these cult films!!!”. Donnie Darko, The Big Lebowski, Fight Club, The Room, I’ve seen those lists and I am no longer impressed. What I personally would like to see is films about cults, and after careful consideration, I have gone on a binge-watching frenzy to find the best documentaries on cults. This binge-watching fest made me feel a bit crazy, as it was followed by a conspiracy theory spree, so I recommend watching these with caution and perhaps with a few days in between viewings. In other words, don’t follow my example and watch three films on cults in one night. If you do, you may find yourself looking over your shoulder more often than not, and squinting your eyes when your friend says they’ve joined a meditation group. You have been duly warned.
Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie (2016 in NL)
93% on Rotten Tomatoes
This was my first real introduction to Scientology. Yes, I was aware of its existence and cult status prior to watching this, however I had not delved into researching it yet. I must admit, I did not learn that much about Scientology, except that it’s messed up on a whole ‘nother level. Because of the religion’s secrecy, Theroux cannot truly investigate it, and only learns things through former members of the church. What is more interesting is that as the film progresses, the testimonies from the former members seem more and more crooked, and it becomes difficult to trust them.
What I found particularly fascinating — and disturbing — is the way Scientologists acted towards Theroux after they realised that he was trying to film a documentary on Scientology. They treated him in the same manner they treat the members that leave the church. It’s truly incredible to see these Scientologists in action, and see how utterly out of touch they are with the world outside their cult. Overall, this documentary may not explain a lot about Scientology itself, it does however give a pretty clear picture of how messed up and brainwashed Scientologists are, all the while Louis Theroux lightens up the disturbing subject with his British humour and light-heartedness. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll feel super weird.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
94% on Rotten Tomatoes, can be found on Netflix
If you truly want to learn about Scientology, I recommend this documentary. Whereas in Louis Theroux’s film you learn about Scientology from a more outsider perspective, this film delves into the inner workings of the church. The documentary is very structured, beginning with former Scientologists recounting how and why they joined the church. The film details the history of L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Scientology, and the way he started the church. It then moves on to the death of Hubbard and the rise of Scientology’s current Chairman of the Board (read: cult leader), David Miscavige. It continues with interviews of several former members, who were all at one point high-ranking officers in the church. Finally, the film shows the way in which former members are treated after leaving the church. This is the same strange and abusive behaviour that is found in Theroux’s documentary. All in all, this film is very thorough, providing the insights that Theroux could not.
Jonestown The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)
94% on Rotten Tomatoes, can be found on Youtube
This documentary can be summed up in a single word: chilling. I could not watch the last half hour without chills and a lump in my throat. This film covers the cult following of Jim Jones and the mass suicide/murder of Jonestown, Guyana, where over 900 people lost their lives. If you are unfamiliar with this tragic event and everything that lead up to it, this is a must see. Several of the few survivors of this day recall what life was like with Jim Jones, and ultimately what happened on that faithless day. Their stories are heart-shattering, as they speak of their experience losing their loved-ones.
The most bone-chilling part of this documentary is that—despite it being an incredible and unbiased reconstruction of the rise and fall of the cult—it offers no answer to the question: why? Why would over 900 people agree to this mass murder/suicide? How could this have happened?
Perhaps the most insightful thing about this documentary is the first sentence spoken in the film, a quote from one of the Jonestown survivors: “Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something that they think is going to hurt them.”
Overall, this is not an easy film to watch. It is heart-wrenching, haunting, and it leaves you with an inexplicable emptiness. However, it is an incredibly interesting and insightful piece on religion and how it can both offer hope and horror, and I strongly recommend it to anyone that can stomach watching it.
Holy Hell (2016)
71% on Rotten Tomatoes, can be found on Netflix
Holy hell indeed. This documentary is filmed by a former member of the Buddhafield cult, which in the beginning is not something that will give you nightmares. It began as a meditation group, moved on to becoming a group of people who lived together, sharing costs and chores, meditating, prancing, the works. Basically a humongous hippie group. Will Allen joined this spiritual group after graduating film school, and became the group’s official videographer. He eventually becomes one of The Teacher’s (Michel) right-hand men. Over the course of 22 years, Allen gathered film after film, and ultimately compiled it into Holy Hell. All these videos create a very strange inside look into the rise and fall of a cult, beginning with members prancing in forests, singing kumbaya-like songs, trying to reach enlightenment through Michel’s teaching, and ending in breaches of trust, mourning, and, ultimately, healing.
However, there are moments when his closeness to and knowledge of this group feels like a hindrance. The build-up is beautiful, he paints a picture of a group of happy, loving people, but the destruction and the fall of the cult feels a bit too rushed, perhaps too painful to create. Yet that does not take away from the fact that this film is incredibly unsettling, especially since the ending is still unwritten.
Jesus Camp (2006)
87% on Rotten Tomatoes, can be found on Netflix
Yes, technically this is not a cult but a religion, but I dare you to watch this and tell me that it does not at least feel like it’s a cult. Jesus Camp follows an evangelical preacher at a summer camp that she set up for children. Watching this was stomach-turning, frightening, and disturbing, and I do believe other viewers share those sentiments. How could you not when you’re watching children getting indoctrinated, crying as they scream out praise to their God, and eventually speaking in tongues? Cults in general are horrifying, but there is something extra appalling when it comes to children being the main “victims” in the situation. Perhaps because adults should have better judgement, whereas in this case it’s forced upon the children. I have the utmost respect for the documentary-makers, as I would not be able to hold back my “what the fuck”-reactions to these people’s practices.
Besides the anger-inducing indoctrination of children, this documentary touches upon the position of evangelicals in politics. They believe that the separation of church and state is wrong, and praise George W. Bush for being so open about his faith. Overall, this documentary gives a non-judgemental view on this group of — if I may — extreme Christians. Jesus Camp shows the evangelical’s views, their ideas, and their faith fairly, and only gives a minimum amount of resistance and counter-arguments against their religion and practices. In short, it was an eye-opening and disturbing documentary well worth the watch, especially if you’re still wondering how on earth D*nald Tr*mp could have won.