In 1968, a group of people started a utopian community. They used a poster entitled “Common Sense” to recruit. It claimed that “Love is the answer and we are all one.” That notion would be all well and good if “Love” weren’t the name of the group’s leader, a Jesus figure to whom they were required to give full power of attorney after they donated all their wordly possessions.

The members adopted the last name “Israel” (the chosen people) and received a virtuous first name like “Truth” or “Patience.” As an initiation, they’d have to undergo a week-long fast, the first three days of which also forbade water. They had to perform hard labor during this time. The only book they were allowed access to was the Bible. They also took a vow of celibacy. Unless they were young, pretty women, and then they got to have sex with Love. If this sounds an awful lot like a textbook case of “cult” to you, well, that’s because it was. “It Takes a Cult,” a documentary about the Seattle Love cult, was shot by Eric Johannsen, a boy who spent his early years living on their compound in Arlington, WA with his biological parents…and 300 other people.

Cults make for an inherently interesting story. In terms of access, it would seem that a kid who grew up on the inside, but has since joined ordinary society, would make a reliable and revealing film about the subject. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. It’s easy to make judgments, but the film leaves nearly all the judgment up to the audience. Because of that, it seems like no one learned anything from situation. The way they talk about brainwashing is so nonchalant. One member says, “My brain needed to be washed.” Yikes. And whenever someone starts banning books, it’s clearly no longer a good place to be. Everyone glosses over the fact that some kids were abused and locked in closets as punishment. It sure seems unlikely that these things didn’t do any permanent damage to the members.

The Love cult fell apart in 1983 when the other members wrote a letter to Love Israel complaining about his abuses of power. He tore up the letter and that was the end of the compound. But the remaining 30 members still believe in the core values and have been attempting to reboot the system ever since. The audience for the screening I attended was full of Israels. The post-screening Q and A revealed that they were all pretty happy with the final cut. I find this very telling about the film’s tone.

The film is full of archival footage from the early days at the Arlington compound. There was plenty of dancing, singing, working, and playing – like it was Woodstock everyday. Most of the time, “It Takes a Cult” feels like an infomercial for the Love family. And you know, I even agree with some of the founding principles. I believe we’re all connected. Not spiritually, but as humans. We should treat each other with the same respect we’d treat ourselves. We should keep our minds open.

However, these ideas (and any idea) become dangerous when you give one person absolute power. I’m not saying the filmmaker was deliberately hiding something. But it does seem like a documentary about a literal cult – where brainwashing and book burning happened, where the leader stole people’s money and lavished himself while the rest of the members worked for him, while young women gave themselves to him and older women took care of his children – should have been a little more provocative.

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  1. Emmanuel says:

    This is exactly what I did not find in the film. When I came to this cult in October 1978, and it was indeed a cult, I was surprised by the fact that my wife and I got no answers to our very simple questions, like “who raises the children”, “Who manages the working teams”, “who organizes the relationships between men and women”, since every single question was answered “it’s love”. At the end of the evening, with the crazy “delousing” ceremony, we understood that it was “Love”, a man of flesh, whom they described as speaking “all the languages on earth”, which he was not. Love was indeed on of the happy few who got all the girls to him. Men there seemed to be sexless, and women where very feminine. Well, when I say men, I mean the “inferior ones”, since some of Love’s Lieutenants had a very shrewd and sexy way of looking at women. All day long, when it was raining, they said: “what a nice weather!”. They did not ask how are you doing, but: “What’s your name”, and like puppets, they would tell you: “What a beautiful name”, not like the names they gave children “Long Suffering”,”Dignity” etc., but what kind of dignity there was to the fact that you had to defecate in a open box where everyone would say “hello” to you at this very inspiring moment. Women were there for some “men” to enjoy. Even one girl came as far away as Tel Aviv, being fasting for one week to enter the cult by a very special Ceremony: “Being loved by Love”. This “Love” even wrote a constitution where it was written that “Thou shall not have any other God but Love”, since “God is Love” the text was in blue letters but Love was in golden letters, changing the order to “Love is God”. After only two days at their “Family”, I told my wife that if there is Hell on Earth, here it is. By the way, the followers of this “Love” cult, when asked all said they would kill if asked by “Love”!!! For me, this man was a megalomaniac abuser, and when I came back to France, my wife wrote a letter describing the Hell we had seen. When we heard what happened with the Jim Jones cult, we understood why men were so sexless in the Family, and we saw so many parallels in this group that we were convinced our analysis was correct. So this film is nice, but far from showing the horrible side of this Cult,and I have nothing against the abused members, but only against the abusing ones.

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