SIFF Review: It Takes a Cult

79 minutes
Santiago Films

3 Stars

In 1968, a group of people started a utopian community. They used a poster entitled “Common Sense” to recruit. It claimed that “Love is the answer and we are all one.” That notion would be all well and good if “Love” weren’t the name of the group’s leader, a Jesus figure to whom they were required to give full power of attorney after they donated all their worldly possessions.

The members adopted the last name “Israel” (the chosen people) and received a virtuous first name like “Truth” or “Patience.” As an initiation, they’d have to undergo a week-long fast, the first three days of which also forbade water. They had to perform hard labor during this time. The only book they were allowed access to was the Bible. They also took a vow of celibacy. Unless they were young, pretty women, and then they got to have sex with Love. If this sounds an awful lot like a textbook case of “cult” to you, well, that’s because it was. “It Takes a Cult,” a documentary about the Seattle Love cult, was shot by Eric Johannsen, a boy who spent his early years living on their compound in Arlington, WA with his biological parents…and 300 other people.

Cults make for an inherently interesting story. In terms of access, it would seem that a kid who grew up on the inside, but has since joined ordinary society, would make a reliable and revealing film about the subject. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. It’s easy to make judgments, but the film leaves nearly all the judgment up to the audience. Because of that, it seems like no one learned anything from situation. The way they talk about brainwashing is so nonchalant. One member says, “My brain needed to be washed.” Yikes. And whenever someone starts banning books, it’s clearly no longer a good place to be. Everyone glosses over the fact that some kids were abused and locked in closets as punishment. It sure seems unlikely that these things didn’t do any permanent damage to the members.

The Love cult fell apart in 1983 when the other members wrote a letter to Love Israel complaining about his abuses of power. He tore up the letter and that was the end of the compound. But the remaining 30 members still believe in the core values and have been attempting to reboot the system ever since. The audience for the screening I attended was full of Israels. The post-screening Q and A revealed that they were all pretty happy with the final cut. I find this very telling about the film’s tone.

The film is full of archival footage from the early days at the Arlington compound. There was plenty of dancing, singing, working, and playing – like it was Woodstock everyday. Most of the time, “It Takes a Cult” feels like an infomercial for the Love family. And you know, I even agree with some of the founding principles. I believe we’re all connected. Not spiritually, but as humans. We should treat each other with the same respect we’d treat ourselves. We should keep our minds open.

However, these ideas (and any idea) become dangerous when you give one person absolute power. I’m not saying the filmmaker was deliberately hiding something. But it does seem like a documentary about a literal cult – where brainwashing and book burning happened, where the leader stole people’s money and lavished himself while the rest of the members worked for him, while young women gave themselves to him and older women took care of his children – should have been a little more provocative.

Originally posted on (now defunct).