This page is a personal repository, as I develop this project and jot down my ideas/thoughts. But feel free to snoop around, if you’re interested.
The Believers is an artistic research project (ABR) I’m currently developing as part of my Critical Studies Master at the Academy of fine Arts in Vienna.
The project combines real stories I gather through interviews with survivors of spiritual abuse (ethnography) and my research on the coercive language techniques of cults. The end result is/are forms of creative non-fiction (meaning, I write and create scenes, thoughts, characters, monologues or dialogues, stories and prose out of the real stories I gather).
These can be merely in the form of writing, or photos, or recordings, or what I call poetic visualization as well as realistic portrayal (see videos below as examples of both.)
My purpose is to exhibit the stories of those having experienced coercive manipulation, and show the common, interchangeable traits and techniques utilized globally, regardless of the cult setting.
Eventually, I want to also write “scenes,” ie: acted out film sequences. I would love to combine these scenes with my auto-ethnographic writings, the (perhaps) audio interviews I’m conducting with real post-cult individuals, as well as these poetic moments of visual exploration, and the “interview” explorations. Together, they will form an ethnographic story, of sorts.
I will get into the details of all of this below, for those confused and interested in knowing more. Here are some initial examples I’ve worked on for my Colloquium Seminar at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
The Believers, episode 1
An exploration with Jason Cloud
The Believers, episode 2
An exploration with Tamalynne Grant
I’m a filmmaker with a background in commercials, narrative film and documentary making. I am also an avid researcher, one who spends an inordinate amount of time researching the intricate details and personal experiences of subjects I’m interested in. I’ve always felt restricted by conventional filmmaking, writing and narrative film construction. Yet, I believe I’m a powerful storyteller and can connect with moments and experiences as part of a larger narrative.
That’s why coming across Patricia Levy’s framework for ABR practices and qualitative research methods spoke to me. Especially the concepts of auto-ethnography and creative nonfiction. I saw that I can gather moments of reality, create fiction out of them, and explore the methods of language coercion through various and diverse creations (writings, scenes, visual poetry, interviews etc.)
So I decided to explore this topic in a more versatile manner, one that combines my film-making practice with storytelling and writing and provides output in a wide variety of genres and aesthetics.
What is a cult? And what is this cult-ish language I speak of?
Cults are an “everything in everything” belief system, generally led by a charismatic leader (but not necessarily always). They offer simple solutions to large and often unsolvable problems. They also provide a community and meaning for those seeking belonging and meaning.
Cults practice coercion and “mind-control,” though the techniques they use aren’t limited to their domain only and specifically. Some of the methods they utilize have also been adopted by ideologies, political movements and for use in marketing and propaganda tools.
Cults block critical thinking and replace them with a wide range of coercive tools that prevent wandering off the official ideology and belief system of the structure. Steve Hassan’s BITE model is a good checklist for the Behavior, Information, Thought and emotional control mechanisms and techniques utilized by cults and cult-like systems. Yet, none of these methods and coercive techniques would be possible without one thing: language
The role of language
This is where my study, research and practice begins. Language is at the root of indoctrination.
Language is what’s used to create a “mini verse” by leaders: a system of values and truths.
Cults co-opt and redefine lingo, have their own jargon that’s only comprehensible to followers and those within the cult (giving individuals “in the know” a feeling of superiority and uniqueness).
Some words carry the power to influence decisions and trigger specific emotions. Loaded Language works as a cult thesaurus of sorts. By adopting scientific jargon and assigning new meanings to them, cults create their own thesaurus or dictionary, with words that have impact on members. Their constant repetition ensures the dulling of critical thinking and the questioning of these concepts. Together with absolutist language that leaves no room for nuances, cults are able to create a specific universe that isolates their followers and impairs their questioning of doctrine.
Without language, there can be no cults, cults need language as a means to construct a unique and special universe, one in which the follower feels like they’re “in the know” and thus, unique. It also ensures a new way of thinking, one in which cult ideology becomes ingrained in daily thoughts, expressions and modes of communication (with other cult members). So the way in which words are being coded and used are important. What’s more, the use of language structures across the wide field of cults, from new-age ones to MLMs, from classical religious sects to political cults, carry homogeneity. In other words, the cults themselves might vary and change, but the techniques are the same. And this is what’s at the crux of my research.
The subject (for me) has three aspects, which I’m researching in my ABR:
Linguistic and sociological: I read and analyze texts written by cult leaders, listen to their broadcasts, and follow their publications to decipher the coded language techniques and meanings in their propaganda. This is done alongside following the research done on cults and cult-like movements by researchers and writers.
Ethnographic: I also compile personal anecdotes and stories (including my own) in an effort to find commonalities among the experiences.
Diverse aesthetic output: I depart from conventional film-making in this project. Instead of constructing an elaborate script based on the plights of a protagonist, an antagonist and the struggles they encounter, I found it liberating to do some creative writing, combine various experiences as moments of reflection, and create works out of them as fiction, which can serve as an ethnographic story when compiled together.
The writings and visual stories has a few aspects intertwined: the voices and innermost thoughts of the characters, a representation of those thoughts and how they communicate them to a wider audience (which might be different than their sincere inner voices) and a more objective perspective through narrative film scenes: revealing the setting(s) and realities the characters are actually a part of as part of their day-to-day lives and experiences. These are all wrapped up in a language and thought process specific to each group and experience. It goes without saying of course, that the language might be specific, but the tools and techniques are universal and hopefully, the journeys can reflect this theory of mine.
These aspects and the varying thoughts and experiences will be exhibited through a combination of allegorical/suggestive (or free floating) shots with a poetic narrative (voiceover that reflects the state of mind and thoughts of the protagonists).
Followed by a “real” documentary style interview (in which valid questions in regards to their thought process and feelings are asked and answered), and (in the future) narrative film scenes and testimonials.
The adoption of such a free-floating and creative format has freed me from constraints and offers me the versatility to continue my artistic based research and creative writing.
I don’t know what will come my attempts and creations… They might all be combined to create an ethnographic film, an exhibition, perhaps even an interactive exhibition or website. Whatever the case, I will continue to compile stories, interview individuals, engage in creative writing from their perspectives as well as that of their communities and even mine, and produce/shoot the multiple and layered experiences.
These might even reflect the various layers of association with cults, from the introduction to indoctrination, from propagation and full immersion to the emergence of doubt and guilt, and then leaving and having to deconstruct and decode and re-code one’s programming.
I will collaborate with actors and other artists (Thank you Tamalynne Grant and Jason Cloud for your trust and willingness to explore), to create a wide range of moments, recollections, characters, stories etc.
The project conscientiously prefers to experiment with genres and aesthetics as an exploration of “imperfect cinema.” (as defined by Julio Garcia Espinosa).