Hot Docs 2015: Deprogrammed
Mia Donovan’s Deprogrammed profiles Ted Patrick, the man who pioneered the practice of “deprogramming” cult members. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, a time when the media had a large fascination with cults, Patrick would get hired by desperate parents to help save their children from whatever pseudo-religion they joined. Patrick would kidnap his target, take them to an undisclosed location, and spend weeks berating them into rejoining society. He deprogrammed thousands of people for over a decade before new laws in the ‘80s wound up bankrupting him and putting him in prison.
Donovan certainly has a compelling figure on her hands, but Deprogrammed feels largely formless, as if it confused sitting on its hands with an objective approach. The film’s interview subjects, including Patrick himself along with several people he deprogrammed, make points both for and against Patrick’s methods, but nothing ever coheres into a salient point. It’s disappointing, although Donovan gets enough information out of her interview subjects that Deprogrammed never gets dull.
But perhaps the biggest sign of how Deprogrammed can feel misguided is how Donovan bookends her film. In the opening minutes, she reveals a personal connection to Patrick through her estranged stepbrother, who was kidnapped and deprogrammed as a teen for being into heavy metal music (this was at the height of “Satanic Panic” in the news). It’s an intriguing hook, but Donovan doesn’t return to it until the closing minutes. It’s a choice that’s somewhat baffling, considering how much potential it has (Donovan mentions that this is the first time she’s seen her stepbrother in almost two decades). There’s definitely a worthy film somewhere in Deprogrammed, but its lackadaisical final product is more letdown than triumph.