“I guess I’ve always challenged authority and that there’s ‘only one way to do things.’”
It’s no wonder documentary filmmaker Amy Berg has an affinity for getting her hands dirty. She’s helmed a number of films known for breaking down walls and challenging that very authority she speaks of. First, she brought us Deliver Us from Evil in 2006 about rape in the Catholic Church. The film garnered an Academy Award nomination. Then there was West of Memphis about the corruption of the American judicial system surrounding the West Memphis Three case.
Her latest film to uncover the perversion that exists in power and the brainwashing that follows suit is Prophet’s Prey. Her main subject is Warren Jeffs, Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Jeffs was infamous for his large amount of wives, abusive behavior in the community and for eventually landing on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. His eventual capture in 2006 and imprisonment was widely covered by the news, but Berg, years later, still has a story to tell.
Paste had a chance to chat with the filmmaker about the untold story behind Warren Jeffs. For her, it was about “the brainwashing, the child abuse, the systemic failures of this group, the fact that Jeffs is still in prison and leading thousands of people” and the “women that didn’t have a strong voice in this group.” Berg reveals how she accessed the FLDS community, dealing with the “God Squad” and deciding when she was being exploitive as opposed to supportive with her subjects.
She also discusses working on her other upcoming documentary film about Janis Joplin, Janis: Little Girl Blue, that premiered this past weekend at Toronto International Film Festival. Whether it’s a character study or a cultural one, Berg is adamant about letting the people and subjects she focuses on take her “where they want to go.”
Paste: Especially growing up in conservative Texas, this film really struck a chord with me—the issues around brainwashing and religious sects. I was so surprised I didn’t know more about Warren Jeffs. This story, though, was definitely in the news and covered. What was still left to be said for you?
Amy Berg: I was approached by some very passionate people who really wanted to have this story told—John Krakauer and Sam Brower—and before I sign on to anything, I always have to see if I can bring something different to it. It did strike all of those chords for me, as well. Even though it had news coverage, I didn’t know much about the story either! The first time I went to Colorado City, I felt like it was a Third World country—in America! You never would imagine finding this in our backyard. I felt that that story hadn’t been told. I’ve never felt so obligated to do something as when I met women who did not have a strong voice in this group and any options in life besides to bear children and obey their men. I felt like there was a way to tell the story that would reach the right people.
Paste: What’s interesting in hearing you say this, is that more attention is given towards the victims of Warren Jeffs than Jeffs himself in the film. Was his personal information restricted or was it a choice not to display as much of that?
Berg: I just feel like whenever I saw anything on the sorry it was pushing that polygamy envelope as much as you could push it. I had to go into every house that I went into with no judgment. That was not part of the story. Most of the people who have even left the church do not have a negative impression of that concept. It’s more about the brainwashing, the child abuse, the systemic failures of this group, the fact that Jeffs is still in prison and leading thousands of people. It was the more fundamental issues that I had to grasp.
Paste: I was shocked so many times watching the film. What was your first Oh my God moment?
Berg: It’s before you even get into Colorado City. The FLDS has the God Squad monitoring activity on the border!
Paste: The God Squad?!
Berg: They’re in these big white trucks with tinted windows that basically follow you around the entire time you’re there. Before we even got in we were being tailed. Sam told us, “That’s the God Squad they’re going to try and make it really miserable while you’re here.” He was right. They were throwing water bottles at us while we were doing interviews. They were making loud noises while we were shooting. One time I was trying to shoot some B-roll and I turned off on this dirt road with my DP [Peter Donahue]. They cornered us so we couldn’t get out.
Paste: Did you have a right to be there shooting?
Berg: Yes! We didn’t break any rules. It’s a public space. It’s just an intimidation factor. If you think about what they did to us, it’s just a small degree of what they do to the people who actually believe in them. It’s scary to think that someone can come in the middle of the night and take the father out of the house or take a woman and put her in a trailer and lock her up. That’s the kind of behavior.
Paste: Watching this film, we can of course think about fear. But just as much as these people operate on fear do they also on hope?
Berg: Janetta is a great example of someone that you have a lot of hope for because she did get out at a relatively young age and she’s having a lot of struggles in life today but she’s only 26. I would hope that she would be able to shed some of the pain from her past and maybe pass something better onto her children. I think the hope is that people who are afraid of Warren Jeffs and his brothers and are confused will see the film and realize that there is another way. They can get out. When we were screening at Sundance in Utah, 100 women [saw it]. Sam Brower is down there helping women find a place to live. It doesn’t matter if you’re 20 or 70—any number of years outside of that horrific establishment is better than nothing. The power that they have is the number of people. The less people they have, the less powerful they are.
Paste: Knowing that you’re also working on a narrative script about Jonestown, what is this fascination that you have with manipulation and brainwashing? Does it come from a personal place?
Berg: I guess I’ve always challenged authority and that there’s “only one way to do things.” On a personal level, I definitely had to get far enough away from things to try to understand them better. I just have this horrible hatred for established views and people being manipulated and taken advantage of. Unfortunately, it’s in every system we put money and power into. I just find it to be an issue that bothers me. But I’m not interested in kicking these doors down. I’m a storyteller. I like to tell stories that are less common than what we see in our everyday life.
Paste: Where does that come from? Did you grow up in a conservative atmosphere?
Berg: Extremely conservative, extremely strict parents. I had to figure everything out on my own. It was definitely kind of see beyond the walls.
Paste: I see these parallels between West of Memphis and Prophet’s Prey. They’re both sort of witch-hunts. But with the former, the bad guy is unclear while in the latter there’s no doubt that Jeffs is the bad guy. You didn’t try to make us understand or like him at all. Why is that?
Berg: He sought power, and he was greedy and probably mentally ill in many different degrees. From the people that I spoke to that knew him when he was young and as he was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of love for him. He was weird as a kid and extremely brutal as the principal of the Alta Academy. Many believe that he was responsible for his own father’s death. He just kept going and going. There wasn’t anything to grab there.
Paste: Nothing redeemable!
Berg: There’s nothing redeemable about this guy! I listened to a couple sermons before I started making the film, doing a lot of research. I was just blown away! He was not Jim Jones. He was not David Koresh. He was just so unique. He’s creepy looking. His voice is monotone. He just feels dirty when you listen to him and yet he’s the ruler.
Paste: You feel almost molested listening to those tapes! Did you ever have a point where you felt in danger or that you’d gone too far?
Berg: No. No. I didn’t feel in danger or that I’d gone too far. I was thorough, but I don’t think that I was heavy handed.
Paste: Have you ever been at that place before as a filmmaker?
Berg: I am so aware of exploitation, and I’m always pulling myself as far back as possible.
Paste: But then at the same time you have to tell the truth.
Berg: But you don’t want to be heavy-handed. It’s in the making of a film that the tone is established. You decide what approach you’re going to have before you start shooting. There’s a way to shoot people that they feel like they’re being confronted and exploited. You’re in their face, and you’re not being sensitive to who they are and what they have to say. I never do that. I’m so careful about respecting the person who’s giving their time to me and sharing their stories with me.
Paste: Most everyone that you interviewed has left the community. Was it impossible to interview anyone still there?
Berg: For members of the FLDS, the media is the enemy. There was a woman that I almost interviewed. She has children and is this very beautiful and timid woman. She was on the fence about filming with us. She expressed that she was worried that her children might never talk to her again. I didn’t want to interview her at that point. I don’t want to pull a family apart. It was a bummer because I really thought she had an important story to tell. She was still inside and she was letting us in her house and fearful of her husband and conflicted about Warren Jeffs. But I just had to respect that. I don’t want to be responsible for someone’s family falling apart.
Paste: You have these themes in many of your films—crime, the psychology behind it and manipulation. Then you have your latest film about Janis Joplin. It may be far-fetched but did you find any parallels between people manipulated by music and people by religion?
Berg: Janis was not brainwashed by music. Janis was horribly misunderstood as she was growing up in the South. She could not let go of the fact that people didn’t love her or people didn’t understand her. She died very young. She spent a lot of her life trying to fix the image that she thought she left behind in Port Arthur, finally realizing it didn’t matter, but it was the pain of her childhood. She was attracted to Blues singers and she wanted integration in the South. People were just horrible to her because she spoke up. It’s so different. It’s more of a character study and a celebration of her music. You can hear that gut-wrenching pain in everything she sings. Where was it coming from? It was that. You probably understand that growing up in a conservative town in Texas! Where are you from?
Berg: Yeah, so that’s not too far! She was closer to Houston, but you understand!
Paste: Oh, yeah! Threadgills where she used to play!
Berg: Austin was great for her until they voted her the ugliest man on campus. Then she had to get out of there. She was really struggling to be accepted.
Paste: First and foremost, you’re a storyteller. But whether it’s a character study like with Janis or exposing truths in a community like Prophet’s Prey are you more driven by the desire to seek the truth about something you don’t understand, or that you do understand and you want to tell other people about it?
Berg: I like to go into it very clean. I don’t like to have an agenda when I start making a film. I like to be open to letting the story take me where it takes me. That said, on Prophet’s Prey, because there was such limited access and not a huge archive, I did kind of understand the timeline of the story, but I didn’t know what I would hear when people started talking to me. Let them take you where they want to go. Hopefully you get your questions as well.
Paste: When I watch your films I think of this quote by Andre Gide: “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”
Berg: That’s beautiful!
Paste: Well, sometimes with documentary films they present the “truth” on a silver platter. I have to say I’m so excited to see the Janis documentary especially because this is your first big portrait piece!
Berg: We were lucky to uncover a few gems. The era that she was from, unfortunately, was not well documented and a lot of material is thrown away and lost. It’s so sad. It would have been so much fun to be in San Francisco in the 1960s! The people that I did get to meet were just awesome. I don’t interview that many people—it’s all about Janis and her letters.
Paste: Then I have to ask you about the Jonestown project because you’re writing it and it’s a narrative.
Berg: I love writing! It’s going well. I just finished the second draft. I think we’re getting close. It’s a female protagonist—a lady who survived Jonestown. It’s all told through the eyes of a female lead, and I’m really interested in sticking with strong female characters. We have all these discussions about female filmmakers and the inequity between male and female. If you look at the people we portray it’s often powerful men—I’m guilty of it myself—that are victimizing women. We need to start bringing the strong women in the center of our film discussion. Debbie Gaby is a really strong woman who survived Jonestown and was part of the group that was able to bring him down which came with an unfortunately tragic side. It’s a really strong story.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.