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TELEVISION REVIEW

The cult was his unhappy home

Noah Thomson assesses the damage a sect causes in his Cinemax documentary 'Children of God.'

September 05, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

If Ricky Rodriguez had not committed a murder-suicide two years ago, "Children of God: Lost and Found" would probably not have wound up on Cinemax. Rodriguez was the stepson of the late Children of God cult leader David Berg, and his murder of another former "Family member" and subsequent suicide brought renewed media attention to the 40-year-old California-based religious group that had been accused in the past of abusing its children. Mainly because Rodriguez left a videotape explaining his actions: As the victim of repeated sexual abuse in the name of the Family, he was bent on getting what revenge he could.

"How do you do it, how you do it and sleep at night?" he asks as he pores over his small arsenal of knives and guns. "My goal is to bring down my own mother."

It is as raw and brutal a bit of videotape as one can see, and it is used, to great effect, midway through "Children of God," a Cinemax Reel Life documentary premiering tonight. Filmmaker Noah Thomson, a former member, has called his project a "personal journey," and though this term has been worn to almost meaninglessness by overuse, that is precisely what "Children of God" is.

Those looking for a scholarly or journalistic exploration of the religious group that grew out of the hippie and Jesus movements in Huntington Beach in 1968 should probably look elsewhere. "Children of God" is a documentary of emotion, an attempt to show rather than explore the long-term effects of being raised outside mainstream society by religious zealots creating their own set of rules and social standards. The result is, as one would guess, less than utopian.

Thomson, one of 11 children raised on a Children of God commune in Brazil, left the Family with two of his brothers and two friends in 1999. Over the years, he chronicled their attempt to enter the mainstream as they were joined by two more brothers and a sister. In 2002, he began documentary-making in earnest, interviewing former Family members, including Rodriguez and Davida -- the young woman with whom Rodriguez was raised -- just one month before the murder-suicide.

The result is choppy and amateurish, which is to say very genuine. The genesis and theology of Children of God is explained briefly in a series of subtitles, faded "home movies" and clips from some of its tracts, many of which center on the sexual exploitation of children. The emphasis is on the interviews, beginning with Thomson and his family. They are, unfortunately, not a particularly articulate group. The nature of the communal upbringing obviously did not encourage self-awareness, and their inability to describe their experiences in anything but the most childlike terms is both affecting -- clearly these young people have been emotionally damaged at a very basic level -- and limiting.

"You're not prepared for the outside world," says Solly, street rat hip in his blond dreads and shades. "You think you know what people are talking about, but you really have no clue."

The Thomsons and most of the interview subjects seem to be living marginal lives with minimal hope of rising above them. A major tenet of Children of God was the destruction of "small selfish families" for the good of the collective. Children were raised in large groups by "nannies" and often had little contact with their biological parents. The children's education was spotty, their ideas about the "outside world" formed mostly by rumor and religious tracts, their sexuality exploited at a young age. "You get in bed . . . naked with some nanny and you're rolling around and that's how it went down," Thomson says to his mother in one of his many phone calls.

Thomson's attempt to get his mother to discuss her choices -- she is still a member of the Family -- forms the fragile spine of the film, which burns with the deep desire for mother love. Several of the people Thomson finds have committed or attempted suicide. Others have surrendered most expectations of life. "Wife and family, I don't see that for myself," says one of Thomson's friends. "I experienced severe punishment, so when I am in a relationship, I start to punish her. But I think there is a spirituality in being alone," he says. "I just haven't found it yet."

Not all of the people Thomson finds are bitter about their experience. Some refuse to participate because Family leaders are suspicious of the nature of his film, some consider it a happy time, and one woman, who details sexual abuse at a very young age, shrugs it off as a utopian experiment that didn't quite work.

Only Rodriguez, in the posthumous video, and Davida are unapologetic in their hatred of the Family. They were children living with the secluded, messianic Berg, who communicated with his flock through "Mo letters," illustrated tracts and child-rearing guides. Many of these were sexually explicit -- a tradition called 'flirty fishing' encouraged women to sleep with men to convert them -- and promoted the idea that children were sexual beings.

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