Editor's Note: Kate Logan's Kidnapped For Christ, an IDA Fiscal Sponsorship project, premieres July 10 on Showtime. The following is an interview with Logan that we published in January on the eve of the world premiere of her film at Slamdance.
Kate Logan was a 20-year-old Evangelical Christian when she went down to the Dominican Republic to make what she thought would be a heartwarming short film about a religious boot camp. She wanted to make a film that affirmed her faith but instead ended up challenging it.
Documentary: Tell me about your background as a filmmaker.
Kate Logan: Throughout my childhood I was always running around with our family's camcorder making silly little videos, but my favorite thing to do was to stop random people on the streets and ask them questions. In retrospect, I give my parents a lot of credit for tolerating this and for letting me get kicked out of stores and office buildings for filming. In high school I convinced my teachers to let me do an independent study in documentary film, and I used the 10-minute film I made in that class to get myself into film school. It was in college that I began my first feature documentary, Kidnapped For Christ, which I wouldn't finish until nearly seven years later.
After film school, I worked on a couple of reality shows and documentary series, which allowed me to learn how things work in the real world (no pun intended). I also traveled to Port-Au-Prince to help produce a film on the history of Haiti. I then went on to work with the independent distribution team that brought Harry Shearer's film The Big Uneasy to theaters. Recently, I worked on Showtime's controversial documentary on the infamous gangster rap mogul Suge Knight, directed by Antoine Fuqua, as well as the upcoming Independent Lens/PBS documentary One in a Billion.
Kidnapped For Christ is my first feature documentary that I've directed and produced, and I'm very excited to see where it goes and how people react to it.
D: You went into this story thinking that on some level you would be making an advocacy piece about the camp. Talk about the process you went through as your ideas changed about the facility.
KL: When I originally got the idea to make this film, I had no idea that anything controversial was going on at this school. I envisioned a short, heartwarming story about rough-and-tumble kids coming together to learn about another culture and work through their issues in a safe environment away from the bad influences back home.
My first clue that things might not be what they seem was when I got in contact with some former students of the school. They told me some very disturbing stories about abuse that they suffered there. However, most of them had been there 10-20 years ago, so I wasn't sure if any of those things were still going on, or if these were just isolated incidents.
Once I got down to the school and started filming, it wasn't long before I realized that not much had changed over the years. The points and levels system, the punishments and the lingo were all exactly as the former students described them. Even the staff admitted that the program hadn't changed much over the 35 years they had been operating. I saw for myself that students were given humiliating and degrading punishments even for small offenses. For example, on one of my first days filming I saw a girl scrubbing the steps to the school all day long, and she was reprimanded for "taking a knee"; she was told that she could not rest on her knees while scrubbing. So basically, she had to take a stress position for over six hours while scrubbing in the hot Dominican sun. There was another girl who had to scrub an empty pot all day while facing the wall. I was told that this was her punishment for not having a good relationship with her house mother. These things were just the very tip of the iceberg, but they gave me insight into the culture of fear and intimidation that the staff created.
D: It seemed as if you got a lot shot and then had to figure out how to both make your footage into a film, and how to resolve the story. Sometimes as a documentary maker you just have to have patience to wait for a story to come together.
KL: We shot about 90 hours of footage over a total of seven weeks on campus, and then, for a number of reasons, we had to put the project on ice. The first reason was that all of our main characters were still at the school and most were under 18, so we had to wait for them to come home before we could talk to them and get their permission to use their footage. Two of our main characters didn't even get out of the school for another couple years after we left. Without giving away too much of the story, I can also say that there were some issues with the school finding out that I was helping to get a student out after he had turned 18, and then threatening legal action to stop production. On top of all of that, at the time I was 20 years old, and I didn't even have the money for the hard drives to put the footage on, much less pay for post-production.
Fortunately, a few years later, I was able to get in touch with the students I had filmed and get their permission to put them in the film. With the help of Stash Slionski of East Pleasant Pictures, I was able to get a trailer cut and started raising funds for post. I also found some amazing production partners, Yada Zamora and Paul A. Levin of RedThorn Productions, who brought in much needed post-production support and helped me to craft the story.
Looking back on the process, I think that patience was key. Even if I had had the experience and funds to finish the film faster, I don't know that the subjects of the film would have been ready, especially since they were all teenagers when I started the project.
D: It seems that the film is already getting a lot of attention in certain circles. Can you talk about working with a subject that is so close to you and so fraught with controversy?
KL: We're very lucky to have a lot of support behind the film from a diverse range of people—the LGBT community, groups of survivors of similar institutions, Atheists and skeptics, and, perhaps unexpectedly, Christians. I really love how we'll get letters of support from both Christians and Atheists, and they'll both say basically the same thing: that it's an outrage that this kind of abuse has occurred in the name of religion. One thing we've always tried to be careful about is not to demonize religion or Christianity, because this isn't a problem that's unique to Christianity. Abuse occurs in hundreds of unregulated residential programs for teens, many that have no religious affiliation.
One thing I've learned working with subjects that are so close to me, and on an issue that's so controversial, is to always remember why I'm doing this film. I've saved several messages I've received from former students over the years, thanking me and the team for making this film. When people criticize me or I start to doubt myself, I just go back to those messages and remind myself why we're doing this, and that never fails to keep me going.
D: I've seen a number of films this year that are concerned with ideas of faith. Can you tell me about how your own relationship to faith plays a role in the film, and how your relationship to your own faith changed in the process?
KL: When I started the film I was an evangelical Christian and I was attending a conservative Christian college. I don't think I ever would have gotten permission to film at the school had I not been a part of the evangelical sub-culture. Being of the same faith as the staff at Escuela Caribe gave me the access and understanding that I needed to make the film, but it also caused me great personal distress as I struggled to reconcile the fact that people who were a part of my faith were doing things that caused so much harm.
Intellectually, of course, I knew that people do bad things in the name of religion, but it was much different actually getting to know the people doing those bad things. I saw just how similar I was to the staff members at Escuela Caribe, especially the young ones who came to the school right out of college. I realized that I could have easily become one of them. Escuela Caribe was similar to a cult in many ways. Most people didn't know what they were getting themselves into when they agreed to work there, and once they got down to campus they had signed a two-year contract and were isolated from everyone they knew back home. What might have set off alarm bells back home, started to seem normal at Escuela Caribe.
I kept hearing staff members describe how God had "called" them to come work for Escuela Caribe. I had used similar language countless times in my life. I had even told people that I felt "called by God" to make this film. But how could God have simultaneously called them to work at Escuela Caribe and me to expose the school as abusive? Obviously someone was hearing God wrong, or perhaps, I began to wonder, God wasn't talking to either of us. After I got home from filming, I couldn't pray in the same way I used to. I no longer trusted myself to hear from God. That was the first major crack in the armor of my faith, to borrow a Biblical metaphor. Over the next several years I began to doubt other tenants of my faith, and eventually I left Christianity all together. Today I consider myself an agnostic, but I still have a deep respect for religion, so long as it's never used to harm or suppress others.
D: Can you tell me anything else about the film that you think people should know?
KL: I want people to know that this film tells only a few stories about one school, but that there are hundreds of similar programs across the US and abroad where millions of teens have been subjected to inhumane treatment. Some have even died in these types of programs. It's important that the public is made aware of this problem so that we can call upon our lawmakers to regulate residential treatment programs for minors.
Kidnapped For Christ won the Audience Award for Documentary Feature at Slamdance.
Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premieres January 17 at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.