Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, directors of “The Vow,” HBO’s limited series about NXIVM, never want to hear the organization referred to as only “a sex cult” again.
Although NXIVM made major news headlines three years ago, first with a New York Times story about DOS, a group-within-the-group that was collecting embarrassing material on its members (called “collateral”), as well as branding them and in some cases allegedly manipulating them into sexual situations, the group itself was founded in 1998 as a self-proclaimed “multi-level marketing company.” Co-founder Keith Raniere led thousands of workshops and classes on self-improvement and self-actualization, and the company opened centers around the world. To label it just a sex cult now, Amer tells Variety, is “deeply problematic.”
That is why he and his wife and documentary filmmaking partner Noujaim are “trying to tell a story with dignity.” He explains, “People put a lot of faith in the documentary. I’m not saying we’re here to right all wrongs, but we’re trying to help bring in more nuance.”
Over the nine-episode first season, Amer and Noujaim primarily follow Sarah Edmondson, Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse, three former members of NXIVM who devoted their lives and careers to Raniere’s teachings for years before ultimately telling their stories to the New York Times. In later episodes, actor Catherine Oxenberg also becomes a prominent figure in “The Vow” as she fights to get her daughter India out of Raniere’s clutches.
“We were following the story long before there was any news element,” Noujaim tells Variety. “It started as a very personal story. Mark was somebody I had known for 10 years at that time and had always believed very much in the organization and the ethical mission of the organization was all of a sudden talking in a very different way, questioning everything that he believed, and it was very much a crisis of faith.”
Noujaim took NXIVM’s “flagship introductory class” in 2010, she recalls, and met a number of people in it with whom she kept in contact. That same year, she spoke with Vicente and “a couple of the other leaders in the organization about potentially making a film” about the organization. But it wasn’t until 2017 that she finished that class and now, in 2020, that she and Amer are finishing the documentary — although the story the documentary is telling is not one they could have predicted when first hearing about NXIVM.
“The fundamental basis of most religions is a kind of surrender to an ethical mission, and I’m not saying that NXIVM is a religion, but in many ways the dynamics that you see in NXIVM you see also in a political party, in religious organizations,” Amer says.
Noujaim says her personal connections within NXIVM “absolutely” helped gain access to pivotal pieces of material for “The Vow” — from in-depth interviews to video and audio recordings of NXIVM meetings and classes, as well as personal phone conversations.
“The people I had met were not drawn to a sex cult. Eighteen-thousand people took self-improvement classes; there was a small number that joined DOS. So many of the people that knew me, knew that my intention was understanding, rather than some kind of take-down film,” she says.
Using such footage was essential to the filmmakers to put the audience inside their subjects’ experiences. “You have the chance to feel what it might actually be like to be there,” she explains. “The first priority with making the show is humanizing the story: To take an issue that people think they understand — that has been plastered and sensationalized across the headlines — and to try and put a nuanced, human face to it. And to take our time doing it. That’s the luxury we have as filmmakers, rather than journalists.”
Both Amer and Noujaim compare telling the story of NXIVM — from its creation to the abuse of power that eventually went on within it — to “peeling back the layers of an onion.” That is why they start with the organization’s earlier days and seemingly positive intentions, before diving deep into the subsets that began to warp the original message and mission.
“It’s a gradual stepping stone to get to some of the more intensity that you see in the series. But at the introductory level, which is what most people took, it’s pretty seemingly benign,” Amer says of NXIVM. “A lot of the language you’d hear in the classes was not that different from the language you’d hear in most parts of L.A., with people talking to their life coach. It’s a lot of the same self-actualization, ‘you can become what you want to become; you control how you want to feel,’ radical self-reliance. That has a beautiful aspect to it, but as we see in this story, that can also be a gateway to abuse: abuse by a community, abuse of yourself, which I think is really interesting and complicated, and abuse of others.”
This includes covering actor Allison Mack’s involvement with Raniere and later JNESS (a women’s “empowerment” group that was born of a patriarchal way of thinking) and DOS.
Noujaim calls Mack someone who “came into the organization, very obviously, with a very open heart and open mind and a desire to learn,” and notes she had a “real innocence about her” in the beginning. (Noujaim also adds that she did meet Mack a few times in her earlier days with NXIVM.) Mack can be seen in archival footage from classes, promotional videos and personal recordings in “The Vow,” not a new, original interview. But that is not to say the filmmakers would not want to tell her side of the story.
“Because we’ve seen that,” Noujaim says of Mack’s aforementioned vulnerability depicted within “The Vow,” “we know that there’s a much deeper story to the story that has been told across the headlines regarding Allison. She is a human being asking these questions of herself and wanting to live a more ethical life, and I think that, as a human population, understanding and having empathy with people is one of the most important things we can do.”
As “The Vow” airs, the fate of NXIVM’s members still looms. People such as Edmondson, Vicente and Piesse are still grappling with the time they lost while devoting their energy to the organization, as well as mixed feelings about their involvement, especially when considering how many other people they brought into the group. (Vicente was the one who encouraged Noujaim to finish her classes — which she did in 2017, not too long before the New York Times article came out.) Other members may be struggling similarly and may even be the subjects of a future season of the show. “We reached out to everybody involved — many people, on all sides of the story — and we are continuing to film,” Noujaim says.
Meanwhile, Raniere was convicted of sex trafficking and multiple counts of conspiracy in June 2019 and is scheduled to be sentenced in October 2020. Mack was arrested for sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and forced labor conspiracy and has been living under house arrest, but her sentencing was delayed, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Amer calls the timing of the show airing around the time of supposed sentencing “complete luck” and notes that “The Vow” may not have a clear ending because it’s about a “moment in time.”
He explains: “It’s really about where they begin and where they end, with an understanding of where they’ve gotten to, as opposed to being a historic document that’s chronicling every event of the story. It is ‘A NXIVM Story,’ not the definitive NXIVM story.”
“The Vow” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.