To say that I “love” the work of documentarian Amy Berg would be a poor choice of words. Usually featuring subject matter that is incredibly hard to stomach, her films are amongst some of the most confronting being released today, and completely compelling. To say I admire and have utmost respect for what she does would probably be a better way to phrase things, as the incredible talent is one who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty when it comes to some of the most repugnant topics out there.
A chilling portrait of a megalomaniac, tonight’s documentary helmed by Berg is PROPHET’S PREY, a narrative of warped religious authority and patriarchal abuse every bit as chilling as her pedophile priest exposé, DELIVER US FROM EVIL. The Oscar-nominated documentarian delves into another story of innocence abused, but this time the lens is turned on authority figures in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints rather than the upper echelon of the Catholic faith.
When lead subject Warren Jeffs rose to Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, he took control of a religion with a very long history of polygamous and underage marriage. In a short time however, Jeffs managed to expand these practices and the power of his position in unprecedented ways. To say he took things to the next level would be putting it mildly - he bridged the gap between sister wives and ecclesiastical rape, befuddling the moral compass of his entire congregation. The finely crafted film examines Warren Jeffs' life and shows us exactly how he became a worshipped and adored Prophet. Even now he has a devout following numbering in the tens of thousands - many of whom would give their life at any moment with just one word from the “great” man. Despite a trail of abuse and ruined lives, Warren has maintained his grip on power.
Though Jeffs is now imprisoned, there are many children still living in dangerous conditions, and Berg has her doubts that many members of the cult will be able to shake off their leader’s influence. From his cell, he continues to correspond with his followers, issuing apocalyptic warnings of imminent natural disasters. It is frustrating viewing, but like many of Berg’s other works, it is a story that needed to be told.
As aforementioned, Berg doesn’t shy away from unpleasant subject matter, and is often the person willing to tackle the most insidious of tales. “Thank you for telling this story!” an audience member cried out just before the first screening of her Hollywood sex abuse documentary, AN OPEN SECRET, which is a title that begs for an expose.
The film premiered in late 2014 as part of the DOC NYC festival, and has faced significant hurdles in securing a release, a fact that Berg, who attended the screening along with some of the film’s subjects, acknowledged up front. “We get one screening,” the director reportedly told the audience after the credits rolled. “Maybe we’ll get distribution. It’s not very likely.”
The problem is the subject matter, which is amongst Berg’s most controversial yet. The film centres on the rise and demise of Den, an early digital network that was allegedly at the heart of a Hollywood sex-abuse ring. The movie features extensive interviews with Michael Eagan, who, subsequent to participating in the film, drew headlines for his allegations against key Hollywood power players like X-MEN director Bryan Singer (he subsequently dropped the lawsuit). Todd Bridges, the “Diff’rent Strokes” star who has said he suffered sexual abuse as a young actor, is interviewed, while Corey Feldman, who has spoken out against sex abuse in the past, appears in footage from prior TV interviews but doesn’t directly participate in the movie.
At time of writing the film has apparently finally received a (limited) distribution deal, and will be yet another harrowing yet essential watch. Much respect to Berg, and I can’t wait to see what she tackles next.
PROPHET'S PREY premieres Thursday 11 August at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel.