Often, the word "cult" is bandied about to describe any new religious movement. Cults reached the forefront of public consciousness in the '70s with the death of 914 followers of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple group. The subject once again became rife with debate recently with the death of members of the Heaven's Gate and Order of the Solar Temple groups. Ondi Timoner's film Join Us provides an eye-opening glimpse inside the world of cults.
Join Us delves into the world of the former members of South Carolina's Mountain Rock Church following the disbanding of the cult-like group surrounding the church. Our guide to the experience is Joaquin, a former Mountain Rock parishioner who gradually realized that the group was somewhat cultish. Upon this discovery, Joaquin was excommunicated from the group and his wife divorced him, both on order of the church's leader Raimund Melz. Joaquin's efforts to inform the other members of their plight led to the crumbling of the group, whose former members soon begin the long process of rebuilding their lives.
The strength of the film lies in the sheer amount of time allotted to chronicling the effects of cults on the former members. Amidst revelations of physical abuse by parents and other adults, children cry and their parents are filled with regret in seeing the damage they inflicted. The initial hour or so takes place in a rehabilitation centre for cult survivors and provides countless revealing moments that tug at the heartstrings and reaffirm that, indeed, cults are bad.
What pushes Join Us away from Michael Moore propaganda territory into the realm of bonafide documentary filmmaking is the second half of the film. After getting plenty of ammo from the families formerly involved in the cult, the filmmakers trek over to the home of Melz and his wife to see what they have to say. The Melzes come across as a nice, elderly couple and are given the chance to defend their position. Even though the film provides an us-versus-them mentality, depicting the Melzes as the baddies, the addition of their perspective makes Join Us fairly balanced. Experts on cults provide commentary throughout the film, providing an effective third-party stance.
The visual presentation chosen by Timoner isn't especially flashy, but manages to showcase the images in effective ways. Music is interjected from time to time, never detracting from the proceedings but never really accentuating anything either. Regardless, the editing is top-notch and manages to provide a tremendously straightforward narrative.
According to the film, there are around 30 million Americans involved in around 3,000 cults. Join Us showcases the people that get involved in cults, how they get sucked in and the consequences for them and their families. For those curious about cults, Join Us is a great cautionary tale.