Saturday, November 7, 2015

Movie Review: Prophet's Prey

Prophet’s Prey
Directed by: Amy Berg.
Written by: Amy Berg.

Director Amy Berg has spent her career so far making documentaries about the abuse of children. Her excellent debut, Deliver Us From Evil (still her best), interviews one of (far too many) priests who rapes and abused children for years, and pretty much got away with it. She has also made the West of Memphis – about the famed West Memphis Three, the trio of teenagers convicted of murdering three younger boys, even though there was no real evidence of wrongdoing as well as An Open Secret (unseen by me), a film about the abuses of child actors in Hollywood. Prophet’s Prey falls in line with the rest of them – as it documents the crimes of Warren Jeffs – the head of the Fundamental Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamist sect where he used his power – first as the son of the “Prophet” and then as the Prophet himself, to abuse and rape countless underage girls – marrying and impregnating many of them when they are little more than children. Eventually, Jeffs would rise all the way to number 2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted List – right after Osama Bin Laden – and now he’s serving a life sentence in jail. Yet, as the film makes clear, he is still running things from prison – and many of his “followers” still very much believe in him.

Berg packs a lot of material into Prophet’s Prey – including a brief history of the Mormon Church dating back to its founder Joseph Smith, and then a history of Jeffs and his father, the original Prophet. Berg has two outsiders – author Jon Krakhauer (who wrote the excellent Under the Banner of Heaven about Jeffs) and Private Investigator Sam Brouwer (who also wrote a book – that this movie is “based on”). It lays out the case against Jeffs in all its revolting details – especially sickening are the audio tapes we hear throughout the film, of Jeff’s flat voice “preaching” all sorts of disturbing things that his followers seemingly do not question, or another tape documenting Jeff’s consummation of marriage with one of his many underage brides. There’s much more – and most of it is disturbing as hell.

Berg has assembled an impressive number of talking heads for Prophet’s Prey – perhaps even too many, as the constant stream of interviews and information doesn’t really allow Berg to do anything all that interesting cinematically with the doc – it’s a standard point and shoot affair – well done as far as it goes. Berg has interviews with some of Jeff’s family members, and others who were once members of the FLDS who have since fled the church, and Jeff’s control.

There is a little bit of a hole in Prophet’s Prey however – and perhaps it is an unavoidable one. One of the things that made Deliver Us From Evil Berg’s best doc is the fact it had such access to the abusive Priest, who damned himself with his own words. Jeffs clearly isn’t interested in talking to Berg – or anyone in the press – so the doc ends up making him into an all-consuming boogieman with the way he is described by many. It would have helped to have more interviews with some of Jeffs’ wives – the one who is interviewed, who left the FLDS, is among the doc’s most memorable interviews – as she talks not only about the abuse, but about the struggles she has had since leaving the Church – which also included leaving her family, who stayed loyal to Jeffs. This community – which fled Salt Lake City, and now lives a secluded life where they control everything (the Church owns everything, and has its members hand over all of their money, and then “provides” for them – trapping even those who want to leave, because how can they leave if they have no money? The Church controls their businesses as well). They are secretive in the extreme, so they are not talking. It’s not Berg’s fault she could not get more of them on camera – but it certainly does hurt the documentary a little bit.

Prophet’s Prey is disturbing in the extreme – and that’s just the way it should be. While Berg still hasn’t quite matched her excellent debut film – she is continuing on an honorable crusade to shine a light on abuse that so many knew was happening, and did nothing to stop.

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