Prophet’s Prey (2015) | Edinburgh Film Festival 2015
Director: Amy Berg
With Jon Krakauer and Sam Brower and Nick Cave
90min Documentary Biography
Religious cults also provide rich pickings for film documentaries. And accomplished documentarian Amy Berg’s study of the cult leader and serial child abuser, Warren Jeffs, is no exception: although you wish she could have delved a little deeper into the personalities and psychology of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). PROPHET’S PREY, although well-crafted and riveting doesn’t reveal more than has already been documented across the media.
By way of background, the FLDS are a splinter sect of the Mormons and were outlawed when they refused to give up polygamy. Based on research by investigator Sam Brower and the bestseller of investigative journalist Jon Krakauer ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’, Berg’s documentary chronicles how cult leader, mega-polygamist and pasty-faced preacher, Warren Jeffs, by process of mind control and indoctrination, gradually took over this extremist religious movement from his position as Principal at the Salt Lake City high school, Alta Academy. What emerges here is not his desire for sex with multiple partners (of both sexes), but more his megalomania and need to manipulate and dominate, which started with his own family members, including his sister. In short, what Jeffs really got off on was the ability to reduce his fellow humans to pure minions under his over-arching superiority, both mental and physical. In effect, he was the deity that his adherents worshipped and obeyed.
Through the talking heads of Krakauer, the intellectual, and Brower the doer; Berg shows how the two played a major part in Jeffs’ arrest and capture, at the height of his power. The FDLS is a highly secret organisation that intimidates women and children and, operating with CCTV at every corner of the community, questions and eliminates any outside who strays into their open compounds, nestling in ‘some of the best real estate between Utah and Arizona. Gaining huge financial leverage over his community by forcing the families to pool their resources and entrust his with the spoils, their leader Jeffs gains complete dominion while they become, in effect, complete prisoners, in a regime of absolute power. Cowering under Jeff’s control, the women are reduced to an almost catatonic state of submissiveness as they roam around in family groups, dressed in 19th century attire (long Laura Ashley-style dresses) topped off with ornate hairdos. Watching the footage recorded by Krakauer, from the safety of his SUV, is really quite eerie and unsettling.
In his calm but controlling monotone voice, Jeffs prophesies doom to his flock if they deviate from his control. When the World didn’t end in 1999, as he had predicted, and his followers failed to be beamed up to Heaven, Jeffs claims it was because they had been unworthy. In this way, he has answer for everything. Members of his family who have managed to escape shed light on the community, by relating their shocking experiences to camera, but it still feels that Berg is merely scratching the surface of this dreadful human tragedy. Through their investigations, Krakauer and Bower manage to get Jeffs on the FBI’s Most Wanted List leading to his eventual arrest in Nevada.
Berg’s collaborators Scott Stevenson and Brendan Walsh assemble a fascinating array of pictures and news footage that enliven this spooky and quite nauseating saga, Nick Cave occasionally narrates and provides the film’s atmospheric original score. MT
SCREENING AT EDINBURGH FILM FESTIVAL | 17 -28 JUNE 2015