Filmmaker Ondi Timoner makes a striking departure from her lauded rock-band doc, “DIG!,” with “Join Us,” a frankly partisan but revealing look inside the twisted psychology of a Christian cult in South Carolina. Wherever Timoner’s camera goes — either with ex-cult members or their stern and reportedly abusive former leader — the director is closely involved with her subjects, resulting in an unusually intimate experience, as parents absorb the fact that they’ve allowed a stranger to control and even violently manhandle their children. Pic contains the kind of intense drama suited for theatrical clout after a promising fest run.
Timoner follows families who have fled from the control of Raimund Melz, German-born pastor of Mountain Rock Church, founded in upstate New York and then moved to Anderson, S.C. Families gather at the Ohio-based Wellspring Retreat, run by Dr. Paul Martin and Liz Shaw, experts in de-programming cult followers and the mind-control methods first examined by Robert Jay Lifton in his classic tome, “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.”
As the families undergo weeks of therapy, gradually understanding the techniques Melz used to create enormous emotional dependency and unquestioning trust in his guidance, they also open up to each other and Timoner about the emotional and physical pains suffered and regrets endured under Melz’s total control.
Cult originated with John Dwyer, who was Melz’s cohort, along with Melz’s wife Deborah, when they moved to Anderson. With his marriage to Deidra Lee Dwyer, a larger circle of relatives was brought into the new congregation, which appeared to be practicing Christianity of a fire-and-brimstone evangelical variety.
Guilt-wracked Deidra is typical of the parents who recall with stunned self-disgust how Melz created a situation — including funding a suburban housing development built by and for the families from the ground up — in which their individual identities were worn down, allowing Melz to dictate when and how their children should be disciplined, and even, in the case of Kristy Sullivan, when to divorce her husband, Joaquin.
Latter leads the charge against Melz, taking legal action that the local D.A. is reluctant to support for lack of evidence of Melz’s alleged child abuse. By contrast, Tonya Rogers still feels pangs of loyalty to Melz, and wonders if the group’s time at Wellspring is an act of betrayal. Still, she manages to play a key role in a meeting between Melz and his former flock that reveals the considerable wounds felt by family members.
Skeptical viewers may wonder how such outwardly conventional and otherwise unremarkable people could allow themselves to be dominated by one man — particularly someone like Melz, who comes off as a stern control freak on camera. Lifton and other experts remind that the very nature of belief, plus the power of a particularly strong leader, makes the mind vulnerable to cult-like obedience. It’s this lesson, as well as the vivid recording of actual events, that makes “Join Us” an unusually useful doc.
Yank auds will be left with the additionally disturbing fact that the U.S. has more cult activity than any other country, raising questions about what it is in the American character that spawns such bizarre cul-de-sacs, from the mass suicides of Jonestown to the barely averted tragedy of Mountain Rock Church.
Production credits, including vid lensing by Vasco Lucas Nunes and Timoner and editing by Tim Rush and Timoner, are aces.