Jun 16, 2016

Movie review: Mia Donovan's Deprogrammed cracks cult appeal

June 16, 2016

Directed by: Mia Donovan
Running time: 85 minutes

Cults don't have much to do with most of our day-to-day lives. They make the headlines from time to time, but to the average person they don't hold any relevance. So a documentary on cults could seem like a random choice. To Montrealer Mia Donovan, it was anything but.

Donovan hadn't seen her stepbrother Matthew in 20 years when she embarked on her second documentary, Deprogrammed, and decided to track him down. A rebellious teen with a penchant for heavy metal and all its trappings, Matthew was kidnapped by his father and a group of men and confined in a motel room for eight days to try to rid him of his evil ways.

Leading Matthew's captors was Ted Patrick, the pioneer of "deprogramming." A former aide to governor Ronald Reagan, he became known as Black Lightning in the '70s for the speed with which he would track cult members, pull them off the street and shake some sense into them.

After reconnecting with the heavily tattooed, all-grown-up Matthew on a makeshift shooting range on a country road, Donovan goes on a search for Patrick and the many people he helped, and didn't help (Matthew appears to fall in the latter category), over the past several decades.

His methods were controversial. "In some cases, you have used physical force, coercion, deception, harassment to break a person and bring them back to 'sanity,' " he is told in an archival news segment.

It all sounds rather questionable, but things begin to click when Donovan takes us back to the early '70s in California, where within the flower-power movement there emerged a preponderance of "Jesus-centred communes."

Through revealing footage of deprogramming attempts from the era, Donovan shows the extent to which some of these groups took hold of the minds and bodies of their members.

Many ceased to think for themselves and could spout only the spoon-fed dogma of their leaders. Enter Patrick, who caught on to what was happening and conceived controversial methods to get beyond the robotic platitudes.

It involved sequestering alleged victims and questioning their every presumption until they began to crack. And while it didn't always work — Donovan gives voice to a few former deprogrammees who were more hurt than helped by the interventions — Patrick's unconventional techniques paved the way for the cult deprogramming movement for years to come.

Donovan's film would have been interesting enough if it were just a history lesson, but it goes deeper, exploring the eerie disconnect that takes place when people hand over the reins of their brains to an outside force.



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