In the popular imagination, cult members are robe-wearing, mantra-chanting, and tambourine-shaking hippies living in massive compounds, one federal raid away from drinking the Kool-Aid. In reality, says a cult expert in Ondi Timoner’s 2007 documentary, Join Us, most of the estimated 13 - 15 million Americans who are in cults are ordinary people living in suburbia. The only difference is, they’re worshipping at a church (or synagogue, mosque, or zendo — it doesn’t matter the creed) whose main ideas have been twisted into doctrine requiring absolute compliance from its members.
Join Us follows a family during their first days after leaving a small Christian cult in South Carolina called Mountain Rock Church. Like an embedded journalist with unusually intimate access to her subjects (Timoner similarly gained the trust of her rock ‘n’ roll subjects in the 2004 documentary DIG!), Timoner chronicles their harrowing journey, which begins when they move into a 14-day cult treatment center and start to talk about how they were under the spell of Pastor Reimund Melz a thin, smug man with a thick German accent and a penchant for collecting Mercedes cars, and his glassy-eyed wife, Deborah.
Weaving together interviews, footage of therapy sessions, and observations of the family attempting to interact for the first time in six years outside of the cult setting, Timoner creates a lyrically beautiful and nightmarish portrait of people who are trying to piece together not only their shattered lives and families, but also their relationship to their own minds. Although Join Us at times overwhelms the viewer with testimony and expert opinion and would have benefited from more editing, it nevertheless accomplishes quite a feat.
Without sensationalizing an already sensational topic or caricaturing perpetrators and victims, the film attempts to explain why people join cults and how they get stuck there. Ultimately, Join Us does not pretend to fully comprehend the mystery that is the film’s central subject: the powerful fantasy of “family” that is a cult’s allure.
The film begins with a voice-over from Joaquin Sullivan, a Mountain Rock church member who was excommunicated, and whose wife was told to (and did) divorce him after he began to question Reverend Melz’s teachings and speculate openly that Mountain Rock Church may have been be a cult. He explains how he and his extended family—including his sister, his wife, her mother and their various in-laws—came to join the church at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, and how he eventually convinced them to leave and get treatment.
It is hard to imagine, when one hears Sullivan speak, that this intelligent and thoughtful man could have ever been in a cult. It becomes harder still to comprehend how subservient he and his family became to Melz. The men not only bought land for him, they built houses on the land, and when they were finished—incredibly—they rented the houses from Melz. Sullivan claims they also allowed and participated in the brutal abuse of their children at Melz’s behest, in order to rid them of the devil.
“I have no idea how to be a mother anymore—not one clue,” says one of the most shell-shocked escapees from Mountain Rock, Tonya Rogers. A pretty woman in her late 20s, Tonya was initially reluctant to join the church. But by the time we meet her, she has been so indoctrinated by the pastor and his wife that even though she admits Melz beat her children (holding two of her children’s hands to a hot stove to teach them how hell feels and beating them with PVC pipes), she believes that going against him will damn her to hell. Timoner depicts the children, meanwhile, responding to frustration either through physical violence or by threatening each other with physical violence.
Trying to understand why people get involved in cults may be as hard as figuring out why people fall in love. Both are, in part, irrational and emotional acts whose motivations can be understood only up to a point. For all of Timoner’s exhaustive efforts to explicate the mystery of cults and their followers, it is, ironically, Tonya’s flawed hidden camera footage of a confrontation with Reimund and later his wife that tells us more about their relationship than testimony from either side did individually.
In the footage, Reimund and his wife are depicted at odd angles, sometimes in fragments. A hazy light obscures everyone, and the footage abruptly stops at random intervals. When both Reimund and then later Deborah become emotional with Tonya, the video goes dead and only audio remains. All of these technical difficulties metaphorize the aporia at the heart of powerful relationships and the visual and epistemological limits of documentary knowledge. There are things we cannot see or know, Timoner suggests with the inclusion of this video, things that break off into darkness. “You’re supposed to love even when it hurts,” Deborah says to Tonya, chastising her for leaving the church. “That’s family.”