May 3, 2023

Man behind 'In the Name of God' talks religion, ethics

Korea JoongAng Daily
May 2, 2023

It was two months ago that Netflix released "In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal," stunning the nation by shedding new light on the country's notorious religious cults that have been around since the 1980s.

The aftermath created by the global streaming platform is still rippling through Korean society as viewers have realized through the docuseries that the victims of these cults are still very much in pain.

On March 23, the prosecution and the police raided the Jesus Morning Star (JMS) headquarters, located in Geumsan-gun in South Chungcheong, to investigate its leader Jeong Myeong-seok’s alleged sexual crimes. JMS is one of the most controversial cults featured in the series. The decision was made after complaints were filed by two foreign women and three Korean women, all of whom used to be followers of JMS.

Reignited by “In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal,” will the war against cults lead to justice for those wronged?

Cho Sung-hyun, the main producer behind the hit series, recently sat down with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, and talked about the two-year production process of the docuseries, the real story behind interviews, faith and pseudo-religion and more.

Cho, with a sign of relief, said, “A day like today is most rewarding.”

The following are excerpts from the interview.

Q. Are you religious? If so, how have you maintained your faith even after the release of “In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal”?

A. I am cautious to identify myself as a Christian. I was born a Christian and went to Handong Global University, a Christian university where the majority of its students are Christians. After the docuseries was released, I try to attend the Sunday service alone, quietly. My wife does not have a religion, and I plan to introduce the religion to my children when they reach a certain age where they can make their own choices. Religion to me is thinking about what people who know the preciousness of each life can do for others. I think this is the correct way of living a life as a faithful believer.

Do you feel the popularity and response from viewers regarding the series?

I think this will tell how much our docuseries has gained steam: My mother is not a Netflix subscriber, and I did not tell her what kind of documentary I was making because I thought she would worry. But my mother later sent me a text message telling me to "be careful," and that was a sign to me that this series was really becoming topical. A doctor at a hospital I always go to also recognized me after it was released. Above all, I do not feel bad when I hear the achievements of it being the first Korean documentary to top television series rankings or climbing to global rankings on Netflix at number five.

You must have been under a lot of stress during investigations for “In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal.”

There has never been a more difficult coverage in the 15 years of my career as a producer. During production, I experienced blood in my urine and had to visit a hospital. The doctor couldn’t tell me the cause of it. One of my team members suffered from panic attacks, while another suffered a hemorrhage. Now that I look back on it, I think it was because we were exposed to such terrible stories for such a long time. Recently I have been suffering from insomnia with repeated dreams of cultists breaking down my door and beating my 2-year-old daughter.

How do you manage your mental health?

There is a counseling program arranged by Netflix. Until now, I did not consider it because I did not have the time or energy to do so, but I am trying to find a treatment plan such as visiting a hospital.

What was the most difficult part of the investigation?

Everything. Still, getting threatened or being tailed and having information leaks were bearable. The hardest thing was the sudden change of heart of the victims who had initially agreed to interview. It is safe to say that there was not a single person who was happy to appear on the program. A victim would promise to talk to us to appear on the docuseries, but on the day of the appointment, their phones would be turned off. This happened countless times.

Do you have a key to success for covering such issues?

Our docuseries has no narration. In other words, every word is a testimony. In order to compose such a huge story with the testimonies of the witnesses, a lot of people’s specific accounts are needed. To get those testimonies on camera, I had to travel across the country.

We can’t help but talk about the sensationalism and the way the victims are portrayed.

This documentary is not just about sexual assault. There are so many cases of violation of human dignity suffered by the victims that deserve attention, such as the child abuse suffered by Choi Nak-gwi and the labor exploitation of the victims of Baby Garden. From the standpoint of the producer, it’s disheartening that viewers are only paying attention to the sexual assault cases.

The recording of Jeong Myeong-seok’s voice in the first scene of the first episode is very shocking. What was your intention behind it?

There are many people who say that they quit watching after that first scene, because of that voice recording. However, there are also people — former followers of JMS — who said that they were able to completely withdraw from JMS because of that recording. So I do not regret including that in the beginning. There are even some outrageous comments saying that the voice recording of Jeong saying that he “ejaculated fifty times” was made up with artificial intelligence, or that he actually meant that he had had diarrhea fifty times. Defenders say that the scene in which a female follower wooes Jeong into a bathtub is a manipulated video that was filmed by hiring prostitutes. If you don’t show the facts as they are, religious fanatics will continue to build up ridiculously defensive logic. It was necessary to clearly show what had happened.

What do you think of the criticism that it is a director’s and producers’ ethical responsibility to consider the possibility that their content may be consumed out of context?

I respect and sympathize with that point and the discourse on sensationalism. However, I want to ask: What would be different if we did not show anything, like in the past, and simply said that the religious leader did something bad to the followers? Pseudo-religion is a topic that has been covered countless times by traditional broadcasters. Furthermore, one of the victims, Maple, even appeared on JTBC Newsroom in July last year. But nobody remembers that. The film “Spotlight” is often mentioned as a model example of re-enacting sexual assault. It is a good movie, but after watching it, will there be a reaction saying the perpetrators should be severely punished? I don't think so. How to show the behavior of organizations and people whose antisocial nature is at the core is the issue. I have been thinking about this countless times. In the end, I came to the conclusion that I had to show viewers what it would be like to actually be victimized. Otherwise, it would be difficult for anyone to figure out how serious it was.

Was the re-enactment necessary?

I understand that a lot of people would be uncomfortable. However, in the first place, this story deals with antisocial incidents. From the beginning, I had no intention of avoiding the damage by using euphemistic ways to show what happened or by sugarcoating the incidents. As a producer, I wanted the viewers to be able to properly see and feel what the victims went through. I thought that only by following the victims’ history and the feelings of misery felt by them would I be able to address the questions of ‘Are these people really Messiahs?’ and ‘How can our society stop such victims from appearing?’ As a result, I think that goal is gradually being achieved.

Did you negotiate with Netflix on the provocative scenes?

Netflix initially expressed concern about the introductory scene of the JMS episode. From the producer’s point of view, I pushed for it to be included. I insisted that it was a necessary scene even if we lost viewers because of it, and Netflix eventually accepted it. I think the advantage of streaming services is that people who want to see the content will see it, and those don't, won't. The upside is that the viewers who will see it should be able to see it properly. If the goal was for more people to watch the show, it would have been edited in a completely different form than what it is now. From the beginning until this moment, the main target audience was believers who follow JMS or Baby Garden. It was a more important goal for me to have even one or two people who stop believing in those cults due to our documentary.

What do you think is the reason that so many pseudo-religious leaders engage in sexual exploitation?

These people do not view their followers as humans, as sons and daughters and people dear to others. Followers are just tools. This is a story about the destruction of human dignity. Pseudo-religion makes people feel that basic happiness is a sin. The purpose is to separate men and women, dismantle the family, exploit labor and simply use followers for sex. What would happen if a follower tried to pursue basic happiness? It would not be allowed. Because that will not be living for the cult leader. If your religion makes it a sin for you to feel happy, then you should be suspicious.

Why do you think people fall for pseudo-religion or cults?

It has absolutely nothing to do with education, and it’s hard to generalize, but when a victim needs love, a pseudo-religious spreader mysteriously squeezes in and gives them a level of attention that they haven’t received before. Then they exploit them on a level that far exceeds what they had given.

What is a practical institutional device to prevent people from falling into cults and pseudo-religions?

I think the most serious is second-generational damage. People who are born and then find that a cult leader should be their god. They didn’t make any choice of their own, but they are unfortunately placed in that situation and have to go through an abnormal childhood. Choi Nak-gwi, who was killed by the Baby Garden cult, is the most tragic case of second-generation victimization. It would be difficult in reality, but I wonder if there should at least be a law against cradle religions. Religion has a huge impact on our lives, but no one tells you which religion to choose or which religion is dangerous. I think it’s time for our society to start teaching about religion, at least in schools. How to distinguish between cults and pseudo-religions, and how to prevent falling victim to them. Lastly, the weak punishment and social disregard for cult leaders are also issues that need to be addressed. Jeong Myeong-seok was sentenced to only 10 years of prison for his atrocities committed to women followers, but the American version of JMS, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 20 years in prison. I wonder why Korea has become a safe country for religious leaders who commit crimes, and I think we need to consider why our society is neglecting this issue.

Most people inherit their parents’ beliefs.

I was also born a Christian. This religion was handed down to me from birth by my parents. And my parents are very proud of that. However, after the documentary, I realized that it is not something to be proud of at all. Why do Muslims have to be Muslims from birth?

You seem to have a lot of faith in your religion.

I am very careful about what I say regarding my religion. I do not reveal that I am a Christian very often. It is not because I am ashamed, but because I can be attacked again when I reveal my religion. In particular, the JMS side tries to take the position of “why do you say that your faith is the only acceptable one,” so I tried to exclude the position of myself being religious.


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