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Losing the pastor's religion in `Join Us'

`Dig!' director Ondi Timoner trails members leaving an alleged cult in her documentary.

June 25, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

For filmmaker Ondi Timoner, the path to mind control was paved by rock 'n' roll. The 34-year-old documentarian first became intrigued by brainwashing and group think while making her 2004 Sundance Award-winning documentary "Dig!" about the conflicting fortunes and ideologies of two emerging rock groups, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Among the footage Timoner collected during her seven years of filming was BJM lead singer Anton Newcombe exerting seemingly maniacal control over his band members and their followers, a group that included up to 100 people.

"When I told Billy Corrigan of the Smashing Pumpkins I was making a movie about mind control," Timoner recalled over lunch at Ammo, a Hollywood restaurant near her office, "he said, 'That's so funny. I often thought that cult leaders were lead singers who can't sing.' "

Timoner's interests led to her latest film, "Join Us," which made its world premiere Saturday at the Los Angeles Film Festival and will screen again today and Tuesday. Billed as an expose of one of the roughly 5,000 cults in the nation today, the documentary tracks a group of family members and others as they flee their homes in a South Carolina compound ruled by a self-appointed prophet.

Unlike most documentaries that take place after the fact, Timoner's film hurtles the viewer into the experience of leaving the group, accompanying members as they receive therapy at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center (described as the only accredited residential "cult-victim treatment facility" in the U.S.) and following as they try to rebuild their lives.

What's surprising about "Join Us" is that the subjects aren't wearing orange robes or sporting uniforms. They look like a batch of blond-haired suburbanites as they roll up to the Ohio treatment center in two SUVs and a BMW.

"They looked just like me," recalls Timoner, a lanky woman in jeans and a pink T-shirt emblazoned with two six-shooters. "Their compound was a suburban subdivision. Like [one of the characters] says in the beginning of the film, he assumes the church is the safest place. Or temple. Any place of worship. [But] if your leader is suddenly putting themselves in the position that 'You can't get to God unless through me,' there's a problem."

Timoner cites research showing the United States to be the cult epicenter of the world: The nation was founded on the principles of religious tolerance, after all, a practice that has allowed some rather unorthodox groups to prosper. Some, like Heaven's Gate and David Koresh's Branch Davidians, became notorious, while others have become more corporatized. But nearly all, says Timoner, operate under the radar. "It's almost like if you [declare yourself a religion] you can run with it," she says. "You can do whatever you want."

Counselors at Wellspring define mind control according to the eight precepts laid out in the 1960s by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, which include a demand for purity, confession of sins, the total control of information and communication, and a sharp delineation between insiders and the outside world. Any group that exhibits at least six of the qualities is considered destructive.

In the film, 21 former members -- the Sullivans, the Rogerses, the Chrismans and the Wakefields (most of whom are interrelated) -- tell how they all lived together, home-schooled their children together and fell under the sway of a pastor who they say controlled both their spiritual existence and their corporal one.

They say Pastor Raimund Melz controlled numerous aspects of their lives, including when and where they prayed and the source of their income: He employed the men in his building business. The group built homes within a compound, the Heritage, which were then leased back to followers. The former members allege Melz beat their children for infractions big and small and ordered the parents to beat them as well, even the infants. Anyone who questioned him was thrown out of the church.

In the film, Timoner interviews Melz, who denies any wrongdoing. He comes off in the documentary as a rather sanctimonious, ramrod figure with a passion for driving his Mercedes. His loyal wife, Deborah, demonstrates to Timoner "the right way" to hit children.

The filmmaker also shows the former members trying to get Melz to confess while they secretly tape him. He denies all their claims, saying angrily, "You're a bunch of liars." At the end of the film, he does acknowledge one particular instance of beating and kicking a child. "That was wrong" he says, and he apologizes to the child "for spanking you."

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