tue 16/07/2024

Storyville: Leaving the Cult, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Storyville: Leaving the Cult, BBC Four

Storyville: Leaving the Cult, BBC Four

A subtle, powerful documentary that has implications far beyond its direct subject matter

Sam and Joe dwelling on either the cost of freedom or the price of beer

Joe, Sam and Bruce may be three callow teenagers from southern Utah but they’re still smart enough to realise that the only world they have ever known is wrong, deeply wrong. So wrong, in fact, that they make the hardest decision of their lives by leaving their family, friends and community behind forever, as this is the only way to escape the madness.

Directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merton deserve credit for being such invisible presences in a film which simply bears witness to the lives of the boys once they have escaped the sinister-sounding “crick”, a Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints community fronted by "Prophet" Warren Jeffs - a man who is now serving 10 years to life for being an accomplice to rape, incest and sexual conduct with minors.

It’s clear what kind of film Leaving the Cult (released in cinemas as Sons of Perdition) is going to be from the moment we hear the first notes of the ominous ambient soundtrack, and 17-year-old Sam tells us of his family’s attitude to his departure. “For them it would have been better for me to die than to leave,” he tells us matter of factly. Joe, also 17, is chillingly succinct in summing up what it’s like to have been in the crick (although his words could equally apply to being in the bosom of any religious extremist group.) “You’re not taught to think about this life, you’re taught to think about the next life.” Indeed. This of course gives licence to the male elders of the FLDS to make the lives of their women a living hell. Under the umbrella of love and responsibility to the community, they have as many as 50 wives which they essentially use as breeding machines, while earning new (often illegally young) wives, rather than gold stars, for good behaviour.

Because of the film’s admirable lack of sententiousness we are given some space to think for ourselves

But these three likeable young men now have a freedom of sorts, and we get to follow their lives for two-and-a-half years as they discover hair gel, beer, free-thinking girls, convoluted hand shakes and daft dances. Measom and Merton (tellingly ex-Mormons themselves) drop in occasional snippets of Jeffs’ taped voice (sounding like a woozier version of Stephen Hawking’s voice simulator) with bits of the Gospel according to Jeffs. At one point he intones, “Men have many wives, and that is the way men become like gods and their wives become heavenly mothers.” He might as well have meant that last part literally, as these poor women tend to be in an almost permanent state of pregnancy, bearing children until they can no longer do so.

Because of the film’s admirable lack of sententiousness we are given some space to think for ourselves on what we have witnessed. We can summon up our own feelings of outrage at the ruined lives of people who think they are doing the right thing, but have got it all so horribly wrong because their hearts and minds have twisted up by a bunch of warped, anachronistic and sadistic ideas delivered in the name of God. But really this film wasn’t just about one sick man’s hold over one small community, it was about the extreme followers of every deity-specific religion on the planet. Although that’s not to say the chillingly rational Richard Dawkins and his ilk are right either. My take on all this is by all means hypothesize or wishfully think that there may be more to life than this veil of tears, just don’t be fooled into thinking any dumb human has ever known, or ever will know, what shape the unknown and the unknowable takes.

Surely common sense and a little knowledge of biology and history should make us formulate the question; if our major religions are only, on average, a couple of thousand years old, and mankind is at least 200,000 years old, why weren’t we given our holy instruction manuals a lot sooner? But hey, now I’m the one preaching; it’s such an easy trap to fall into. But if nothing else this straight-forward question should lead you to suspect that God (take your pick on which one) is pretty perverse to let us carry on unguided, raping, pillaging and – in a state of ignorance we really can’t be blamed for – worshipping false idols. And yet the most blindingly obviously of false idols, such as the despicable Warren Jeffs, can still get thousands of individuals to do his every bidding. And not only that, but it’s the nature of faith that even now that he’s behind bars his flock are as loyal as ever, embracing his new role as martyr. What’s wrong with us human beings? And I do say us, rather than them, because the intelligence, sensitivity and good humour of these three kids shows that any of us could have had the misfortune to be born into the kind of purgatory on Earth that they were fated to.

But at least there’s a happy ending for these boys who, ironically, took a leap of faith to escape their polygamous faith. They manage to assist in the emancipation of other members of their family, and all end up going to college. But let’s leave the last word to the incarcerated Jeffs. At one point his creepy disembodied voice calmly informs us that all of today’s musicians and film-makers are, “the most filthy, immoral, adulterous people on the face of the Earth today". Has that kettle-insulting pot ever been blacker?

Watch an interview with directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merton

Watch the trailer for Sons of Perdition


This film wasn’t just about one sick man’s hold over one small community, it was about the extreme followers of every deity-specific religion on the planet

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I left the "mainstream" Mormon church when I was well into adulthood. Even the "mainstream" church has many hallmarks of a cult, too many to fit into this space. I live in Utah, and while I don't broadcast my apostacy, I don't make a secret of it either. And, though we are all "adults" (notice I didn't say "grownups"), my family refuse to acknowledge that my husband, children and I are at peace and so much happier now that we've left. In short, I feel shunned by my family and by some of my coworkers. But I at least had access to books and television and movies and the internet and was fully grown and living independently when I decided to leave. These young men had no resources whatsoever. My heart goes out to them and to all the "lost children" who escaped or were thrown out. Incidentally, there is a disproportionately high number of homeless gay teens in Utah who were kicked to the curb by their loving xtian Mormon parents. So the mainstream church does a better job of hiding its cultishness, but they still do damage to people's lives.

I agree with Howard Male that "really this film wasn’t just about one sick man’s hold over one small community, it was about the extreme followers" but I would say they are followers of every cult, not just "of every deity-specific religion on the planet." Many cults are religious but not all, by any means. One example of a non-religious cult is the online "philosophy" community Freedomain Radio run by Stefan Molyneux. As an atheist, Molyneux does not preach religion but he shares the cult leader's taste for power over his followers and his greed for their money. The "lost children" in the film had escaped or been thrown out of Jeffs' community. The "lost children" of Freedomain Radio have been persuaded to "escape" their families and to follow Stefan Molyneux's teaching of personal freedom. Both Jeffs and Molyneux exercise power and cruelty over their victims for their own sick purposes.

I have never been so affected by a documentary. These boys are brave, yes, because they took that leap of faith and left. They show a wisdom towards life that you will never find in contempory societies adults- never mind teenage boys of a similar age. You would assume that by them being brought up in a sheltered community that they're growth- intellectually as well as spiritually- has been stunted (or more aptly stolen by this Prophet) but it has not. They have a remarkable faith in their decision to leave and they have a powerful understanding that even though it is the most painful thing that they have ever done they know it was right for them. They are remarkable individuals and I hope that they can keep a grasp of who they are and continue on to a bigger and brighter future- as one of them highlighted that it through this experience that they really got to know who they are. I wish them all the very best!!

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