Monday, April 21, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #4: The Cult


Today was, by far, my most fascinating day at a film festival EVER. There was...An Incident. More on that later...

First on the docket today was Head Wind (6/8), a mid-length (65 minutes) but good film about illegal satellite dishes in Iran, and the country’s censorship of all manner of entertainment the government deems inappropriate. From remote rural regions to more urban locales like Tehran, satellite dishes – and the programming they import – are everywhere...until the police move in to confiscate them. The doc features numerous individuals trafficking in these illegal dishes and/or other prohibited media (e.g., pirated DVDs of Western films), as well as the lengths to which they must go to keep everything on the down-low (e.g., only putting their dishes out at night, and taking them back inside during the day). There’s a beautiful sequence where two men, using archaic machinery, mold a dish out of a giant disk of metal, but the most interesting character was a dwarf who’s like a one-man Blockbuster Video. He’s not interesting for his size or occupation, though, but because he had six fingers on each hand!!!! It’s not actually mentioned in the film, but each time he was on camera I counted: six fingers per hand!

Speaking of weird anomalies...

My second film of the day was Beyond Our Ken (7/8), a remarkable film which goes inside Kenja, an Australian cult accused of, among other things, sexual and emotional abuse of its members. With unprecedented access to Kenja’s founders – charismatic 80something Ken Dyers and his much younger wife, Jan – and members of the organization, filmmakers Melissa MacLean and Luke Walker expose a seemingly benign group (founded in 1982) who, on the surface, seem to be nothing more than a self-improvement movement. But, faster than you can say “Xenu made me do it!”, the darker machinations of Kenja’s operations bubble to the surface. I was completely engrossed in this movie, and its ending (plus its final 10 minutes or so) literally made my jaw drop open. The whole thing was riveting.

But this is also where The Incident occurred.

It started before the screening even began. While waiting outside, I noticed a couple of women working the ticketholders line and very cheerfully handing out these thick, glossy booklets that, in their chipper words, "give the other side of the story." Read: they were Kenja members distributing Kenja propaganda. (They actually flew to Toronto from Australia just to follow the filmmakers from screening to screening. That, in and of itself, seemed to prove the film’s thesis.) People will take anything that's handed towards them, so the women unloaded literature to just about everybody. I declined because they totally weirded me out.

While they continued working, I chatted with the woman standing beside me in line. We talked about cults, and how unusual it was to have these women here, and I said, "I wonder if they'll also have people `planted' in the audience..."

I theorized that, if Kenja was that invested in having their opinions on the film heard at HotDocs, it would be very likely that they’d have members purchase tickets to the screenings and then somehow disrupt the proceedings.

And they did!

After the film (which was at the Bader), both directors made their way onstage for the Q&A, and I noticed a couple of very large men (obviously security) materialize at the rear of the theatre. This has never happened at any movie I have ever seen at this venue at any festival, ever. They were visibly scanning the crowd, and the assorted headset-wearing staffers seemed to be scurrying about, consulting with these big guys and pointing up at the balcony. I knew something was up, but I didn’t know what.

The always adept Myrocia Watamaniuk was moderating the Q&A and opened the floor to questions. A woman right in the front row, right in the middle of the row, stood up (red flag!), turned halfway towards the audience (red flag! red flag!), said (in her Australian accent) "I am a member of Kenja..." and launched into this rather impassioned monologue/question about footage she felt was purposely left out. The filmmakers, who clearly anticipated the group's presence, tried to answer, but she just kept going...and going...and going. She started accusing them of “interrogating” Ken, and not being honest about what they shot, and all sorts of things. Security started to move towards the front, very slowly. I started to get a little antsy in my seat. What was going to happen? Would this escalate? How many more Kenja members might be in the crowd??

Then someone in the balcony, also with an Australian accent and a member of Kenja, started shouting something, supporting the woman up front. This exchange went on for a good five minutes while the filmmakers tried to rein in the Q&A. People in the audience started to get restless, and *I* started to worry about the safety of the folks onstage. I mean, the filmmakers expose quite a bit of Kenja's ugly underbelly, and there’s zero security screening when people come into a theatre, so I didn't know to what extent its members might want or be able to "silence" them. I hoped everyone was wearing Kevlar, just to be safe.

Thankfully, it all ended peacefully enough, with one of the directors actually telling security to let the members stay. He even gave the woman up front the mic so she could tell everybody about a lecture being given on Thursday (in Toronto) about their “organization.” A few other audience members (not affiliated with Kenja) managed to get in some questions, and then it was over.

The whole thing was super-creepy and freaky and unsettling. But holy crap, was it ever exciting! Thanks, Kenja members, for inadvertently reinforcing the entire premise of the film!

Last up was another double bill. First was the short doc The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (4/8), which was a promising but ultimately hollow look at a brother and sister peddling a skin-lightening cream to South Asians in England. All the film did was feature the pair at some sort of trade show, looking for a distributor, while a few random individuals discuss why lighter skin is viewed as more favorable in some South Asian cultures. That’s it. Nothing about the actual cream or its claims or the siblings or anything. I was disappointed.

That was followed with Be Like Others (6/8), which examines sex-change operations for gay men and women in Iran...a country where sex-change operations are actually sanctioned by the government, but where homosexuality is punishable by death. The logic is that same-sex love goes against Islam, but “correcting” a *physical* mistake is totally okay. It was a very strange thing to observe: general acceptance of transsexualism, but overt homophobia, all under one umbrella. Interviews with MTF transsexuals, pre- and post-op, along with the two key doctors performing hundreds of these surgeries, make up the bulk of the film (and some are quite sad), but the most memorable presence is Vida, the kick-assiest transsexual ever to grace a movie screen. She was amazing!


heather said...

Yikes! Freaky and unsettling indeed. I'm glad The Incident didn't turn into an 'incident' ;-)

Linda said...

Exciting stuff! I've seen close to fist-fight verbal brawls at film festivals in post-film Q&As, but never anything that required advance security. This shows why the film fest experience is such a unique way to see movies.

I'd be curious if any of the other folks visiting this festival blog might have some opinions about the film or the Kenja group?

Anonymous said...

this group is a mini scientology, they have started up a 'human rights' movement,as Scientology did, and they have made a mockumentary, as per Scientology. they have a manual somewhere and they are sticking to it.

Anonymous said...

Well this is what these festivals are about. Those women seemed pretty passionate about whatever they are doing down there. Maybe there is some truth to what they are saying?? Something seemed odd to me..

Lou said...

Your description of the exchange between Kenja members and the documentary makers raised tension in me as I raced to the end, and was relieved that no one was hurt or further antagonized. Metal detectors are our friends.

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