Slamdance Film Review: ‘Kidnapped for Christ’
Winner of the documentary audience award at Slamdance, “Kidnapped for Christ” offers an undeniably compelling subject in the phenom of troubled teens who are unwillingly carted off to Christian rehab centers. From the evidence here, the focus at Escuela Caribe (aka New Horizons Youth Ministry) in the Dominican Republic is less on what Jesus said than on militaristic discipline, doling out demerits and punishments for the slightest, silliest infractions. Nor do the kids we see appear to need much help — at least, not the kind they’re getting. Despite its curiosity value and plenty of human interest, Kate S. Logan’s first feature will be limited commercially by its somewhat amateurish assembly.
Like many a young filmmaker today, Logan (billed upfront as a film student when shooting began in 2008) makes the mistake of needlessly putting herself centerstage as a frequently onscreen narrator, lending a “Dear Diary” tenor to a project that really isn’t about her. Rather, it’s about three principal U.S. teens unhappily cut off from the outside world at Escuela Caribe, trying to obey arbitrary rules because doing otherwise will only prolong/worsen their stay. (Which is often up to two years — even past 18th birthdays that should emancipate them — and where “tuition” can cost up to $72,000 per annum.)
David Wernsman, a 17-year-old from Colorado, was literally dragged from his bedroom to the airport by strangers without warning. He seems to be here because his parents found out he was gay — it certainly isn’t because of his 4.3 grade average, or the honors he’d have won had he not been yanked from his senior year of high school. Staffers say they have no particular attitude toward homosexuality, but they also appear to believe that any student who thinks they’re gay or bisexual is simply mistaken.
Tai Mathieu admits she was a bit out of control with sex and drugs before coming here, but she seems so bright and level-headed that it’s absurd to classify her resistance toward groupthink as an actual fault. Beth Engle’s crime appears to have been having anxiety attacks, which are punished here in ways that only seem likely to exacerbate them. (Oddly, she’s the one person who views her stay in retrospect as a positive experience.)
A closing title informs that there are thousands of behavior modification programs (not all religion-based) for American youth worldwide, none regulated by the government; those off the U.S. mainland seem located there precisely to elude outside scrutiny. Escuela Caribe, which in fact closed its doors after several decades in 2012 (only to have another such enterprise take over its grounds), uses techniques like a “quiet room” (i.e., solitary confinement) and “swats” (paddle spanking).
Employees surprisingly if vaguely allow that past instances of physical punishment perhaps “crossed the line” into abuse. However, when professed evangelical Christian helmer Logan starts to question their current methods, they quickly restrict her filming access. (One reason the pic took so long to complete is that Wernsman’s parents threatened to sue, doubtless already stung by concerned neighbors’ attempts to bring the by-then-legally-adult boy home via diplomatic channels.)
This kidnapping for cultlike “therapy” purposes is as appalling as the program itself appears hapless. But Logan weakens her expose by making herself part of the narrative far more than necessary; interviewees or explanatory titles could have filled in information gaps in lieu of her gratuitous first-person presence. The reason a Michael Moore can get away with starring in non-autobiographical documentaries is because his perspective is distinctive and entertaining enough to be a plus; other filmmakers hire professional actors to provide a narrating voice of authority. Without those qualities to justify her role, there’s an incongruous vanity-project tinge to Logan’s well-intentioned production.