Two of the strongest films I saw at Sheffield both involved demonstrations of psychological control over others. In the case of Beyond our Ken, it was disguised as “energy conversion” techniques as part of an Australian human potential movement called Kenja Communication. The name is a contraction of the first names of it’s principal promoters, Ken Dyers and Jan Hamilton, who constructed a new religious movement rooted in Scientology, with all the guff about spirits attaching themselves to otherwise healthy people and causing all the problems that we experience, but with an old fashioned, muscular Christian style focus on fulfilling activities such as ballroom dancing and fencing.
It’s easy to see how people could become attracted to something like Kenja, with its emphasis on good clean fun and wholesome living, particularly those who haven’t had a lot of either in their lives before they get the invite to attend a “spiritual development seminar.” The sense of direction that the participants described stemming from their involvement must have been liberating, even as the movement eroded their personal freedom as they ceded even more control over their working lives, friends and eventually sexual behaviour to the leaders of their movement.
The pace of the film builds towards an exciting climactic confrontation (and a shocking epilogue), but seems to get diverted on a tangent about whether or not people with mental health problems were harmed by their association with Kenja. The strongest argument that any of the whistle-blowers came up with was that people with serious problems were ignored or mishandled, but it is inevitable that those searching for difficult answers will drift between legitimate religions and fringe movements for a time before their problems become acute- perhaps Kenja didn’t help, but it probably did no more harm than many other “faith-based” alternatives to proper mental health treatment which go unremarked and uninvestigated.
The twists of the plot come as genuine surprises thanks to the relative obscurity of Kenja’s founders outside Australia, and paired with a sharp score the insightful questioning by the filmmakers delivers revealing answers which certainly hold the audience’s attention.
The abuse of power by Dyers which makes the meat of the film is certainly startling, but not enough to mark out Kenja for special investigative attention- With such a large number of clergy in a variety of denominations coming under suspicion, the failings of one man should not be used to condemn a group of people who come across as quite charming- the faithful do seem genuinely happy with their newly active lives and it’s hard to watch the Kenja communicators dance about with more commitment than coordination and not feel that there might be something in it.
The second film covers a system of control that lacks the glamour and humourous undertones that the whiff of cult can bring- the sexual and psychological enslavement of young girls on an industrial scale in modern American cities. In Very Young Girls director David Schisgall presents the stories of the girls, who at an average age of thirteen are kidnapped, coerced or emotionally manipulated onto the streets to sell themselves for sex. Most never see a penny of the cash they bring in from the hundreds of punters, who would no doubt plead ignorance of the age of their malnourished and grubby conquests. The police certainly prefer to treat the girls as willing participants in criminality rather than the tragic rape victims they really are- and they are tragic in the classical sense. So often their stories begin with the troubled home lives they have endured prior to running away and the inevitable offer of help and a place to stay from a sleazy pimp, who by promising love an attention if they only bring in cash, and the threat of violence if they don’t, shock the girls into extreme dependency, to the point that in one heartbreaking scene we see a girl leave sheltered accommodation to return to the streets and her pimp.
Hearing the girls in the shelter talk about how much they love the men who have variously beat, drugged and raped them one feels that their chances of living a normal life are slim.
What truly makes this film stand out from the countless other exposés of street life is the access to the other key actors in the girls lives- At the top end of the moral spectrum is Rachel Lloyd, of GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), based in New York, whose tireless work to gradually wean the girls away from their horrific lives deserves more than the medal we see her receive in the film. At the other end are the pimps, whose moral degeneracy is so total that Schisgall, working alongside co-directors Nina Alvarez and Priya Swaminathan, was able to source video which shows them beating and coercing girls off the street and onto the game, shot by the pimps themselves as part of a ‘trailer’ for a reality TV show in which they would star.