The summer before David’s senior year of high school, two strangers showed up at his Colorado home, and as his parents declared their love for him, the two men wrapped a belt around the 17-year-old’s waist and shoved him into the backseat of a car. They drove David to an airport, dragged him through security, down the terminal, and boarded a flight to Miami.
Once there, the honors student learned where he was being taken, that his parents had signed him up for an undetermined length of stay at Escuela Caribe, a Dominican Republic-based Christian behavioral modification school for “troubled” teenagers started in 1971 by Gordon Blossom, a former “juvenile delinquent” who became a pastor. The reason David’s parents sent their son to the Caribbean for pricey offshore come-to-Jesus treatment was that he’d recently told them that he was gay.
David’s experience at Escuela Caribe, along with the experiences of Beth and Tai, two other American teenagers abducted from their homes and taken to the DR for religious fixes, is the focus of Kidnapped for Christ, an award-winning documentary directed by Kate Logan and executive-produced by Tom DeSanto, Lance Bass, and Mike Manning, that premiered Thursday on Showtime (available On Demand until September 3, 2014). Funded by online campaigns at Kickstarter and IndieGogo, Kidnapped for Christ made its film festival debut in January at Park City, Utah’s Slamdance Film Festival and took home the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Much of Kidnapped for Christ was filmed in 2006. At the time, Logan was a film student at the evangelical liberal arts school, Biola University, and a self-professing devout Christian. After hearing about the New Horizons Youth Ministries campus (Gordon Blossom’s NHYM operated in four locations, including a campus in Canada, two campuses in the Dominican Republic, and a U.S. campus in Marion, Indiana), Logan was granted a six-week, almost-all-access pass to interview students, talk to staff, and film many of the daily activities at Escuela Caribe.
Initially, unaware that the school was considered by many to be dangerous and abusive (alleged offenses range from mental, emotional, and spiritual manipulations to sexual and physical abuses), the up-and-coming director says she had no intentions of filming an exposé. But soon, upon meeting and interviewing David and some of the other students, and witnessing the harsh tactics used by the counselors to control teenagers and maintain a fear-driven environment—some tactics that Logan believed were abusive—her filmmaking intentions began to change. In the beginning, the staff at Escuela Caribe trusted Logan, openly answering her inquiries about the ministry’s practices and goals and allowing her to film most on-campus activities; however, a week or two into her stay, when Logan’s camera started showing up at inopportune times—for instance, once her camera appeared while a staff member disciplined a student—her access on campus was limited, her interviews with students monitored, and her personal housing moved to an off-campus facility.
However, despite those limitations, Logan’s firsthand account of offshore American fundamentalism—a kind of Christian fundamentalism that gleefully paddled teenagers, engaged in military-like activities and disciplinary actions, brainwashed students with false “what ifs,” public humiliation, and reprogramming classes, and forced conversion therapy onto teens who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual—is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and at times, surprisingly fast-paced adventure that keeps you guessing as to how David’s, Beth’s, and Tai’s stories end. Once Logan’s six weeks at Escuela Caribe are up and she’s back in the States, Kidnapped for Christ becomes a thrilling and frustrating tale, a plot that surprises you with several unexpected turns, including some pretty shocking confessions showcasing all too well the varied and long-lasting effects that faith-based behavioral modification programs have on people.
Logan’s directing is wise beyond her years. That’s perhaps best proven by her ability to tell a compelling story even while being an always present main character in her own documentary. She navigates the waters between director and star with ease, especially when she’s lamenting how the experience is affecting her own views about God and faith. Only once does she fall prey to forcing the narrative’s hand with a scene that is obviously (and somewhat awkwardly) set up, and on a couple of occasions, you do sense that she might be moving the story forward with her own editorializing rather than with content.
Kidnapped is a powerfully heart-wrenching story, one that is both anger-inducing and redemptive, a richly told narrative that not only leaves you certain that uglier threads of the story exist, you’re hungry to know them. We sat down with Logan. Excerpts of the interview:
Was there anything you witnessed at Escuela Caribe that was troubling to you that you weren't able to film or include in the documentary?
There were unfortunately many horrible things that were going on at Escuela Caribe that we could not include because we were unable to film them. One thing I wish we could have included was the more rough physical abuse that many of the students suffered behind closed doors. The school staff would not allow us to film things like swats or students being sent to the “quiet room.” We were also aware that students were often beaten up and berated for “being defiant”; however, the staff wouldn't do this in front of us. One staff member even blogged about throwing a student to the ground for talking back to him. However, he would not talk about this on camera. I wish we could have captured more of that stuff, because, honestly, the school was much worse than the film shows. Many former students have told me that they appreciate the film and our efforts to expose what was really happening at Escuela Caribe, but that it fell far short of showing the horrors they faced. That’s the scariest part to me, is that we only scratched the surface.
What surprised me the most at the beginning of the documentary was that, for the most part, all of the kids in Kidnapped for Christ seemed like ordinary teenagers—in many cases, they even seemed lovable, well-spoken, and untroubled young adults. Did you meet any teenagers whose behavior or actions seemed at all worthy (on any level) of being sent to a reform school?
Yes, most of the students I interacted with seemed normal and were generally very well-behaved (even if that was just out of fear). I never saw a student yell back at a staff member or act out in any way that would endanger someone else, although I am told by students that this did happen from time to time. There were some students who, admittedly, had gotten into a lot of trouble back home and needed some sort of intervention. However, it was abundantly clear that this program was not helpful to most of its students, regardless of why they were sent there. Often those with the worse problems were abused most severely, only compounding whatever issues they had when they were taken to the program. Sadly, many have gone on to commit suicide, in no small part because of the trauma they experienced at the hands of the staff at Escuela Carbe.
How did the student you didn't interview respond to you being there?
Most students were very wary of us, since they could get in a lot of trouble for saying anything negative about the program. We have several interviews where it was painfully obvious that the student was just reciting lines about how great the school was. Later, I found out that many students thought we had actually been hired by the school to catch them saying bad things about the program—that was the level of paranoia they had. Conveying to the students that we were on their side without getting kicked off campus by the staff was a constant struggle. In the end, it was really the bravery of a handful of students who dared to speak honestly with us that made the film possible.
One thing that wasn’t mentioned at the end of the movie was David's current feelings regarding his sexuality. Has he fully accepted his sexual identity?
David never really doubted his sexuality while he was at Escuela Caribe, he's always known he was gay and came to terms with it early on in life. Often he was guarded while we were filming because he knew how much trouble talking about his sexuality could get him in at Escuela Caribe, but I don’t think he ever really considered trying to change.
Do the two of you stay in touch?
David and I are now very close friends. We love trying to explain to new people how we know each other, it’s always a long story!
How did you and Lance Bass become connected and working partners on Kidnapped for Christ?
I connected with Lance Bass through one of our other executive producers, Mike C. Manning. Mike actually knew David from years before when they both lived in Greeley, Colorado. When David was in town filming some follow-ups with us, he visited Mike and told him his story for the first time. After hearing David’s story, Mike got in touch with me to see how he could help. Eventually, after proving himself an indispensable member of the team, we brought Mike on as an EP and he brought the project to Lance. Lance immediately connected to the story and, like Mike, wanted to help however he could. He’s really been a great guy to work with, promoting the film whenever he has a chance and bringing visibility to an issue that few know about.
At the end of the documentary, you inform us that Escuela Caribe closed in 2012. Do you know why they closed? And do you have any new information about the new Christian ministry that now owns the land?
My understanding is that they ran out of money. In 2011 they were down to 15 students on campus in the Dominican Republic. That could have been in part due to the economic downturn (as the school was wildly expensive). The school's reputation was also harmed by alumni who spoke out against the school and informed parents of the dangers of sending their children there. It is very important to note, however, they were not shut down. The people who ran the program could re-open another program at any time.
All three New Horizons Youth Ministries campuses [NHYM is the ministry that ran Escuela Caribe] were donated to another private therapeutic Christian residential program called “Lifeline Youth and Family Services.” Lifeline re-opened a program for teens on the same campus in the Dominican Republic and retained several of Escuela Caribe’s staff members. The new program is called “Crosswinds.” They are also running a reform camp in Canada on the same property that NHYM owned. They are currently enrolling students in both programs.