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Kidnapped for Christ

by Kevin Taft
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Tuesday Jul 22, 2014
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The harrowing documentary "Kidnapped for Christ" presents a disturbing portrait of the lengths some parents will go to get their teenagers to be who they want - with the least bit of effort on their own part.

As a young evangelical filmmaker, Kate Logan was given unprecedented access to Escuela Caribe, a behavior modification program in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic where well-off parents send their problematic teens. (The tuition is about seventy-five grand a year.) Thinking she’d be examining a program that was doing good, Logan quickly realizes all is not what it seemed to be.

She began focusing her film on three teens, two female and one male, who were there for very different reasons. One girl was there because she had panic attacks and her behavior was frightening to her parents. Another had suffered sexual abuse at a young age and was dealing with a mother she couldn’t trust. As a result, she acted out by doing drugs and getting into trouble. Lastly, there was David, a gentle seventeen-year-old who was taken from his home by force because he was gay. (The counselors at Escuela Caribe state he was sent there because of his behavior at home, not because he was gay. Forgive me if I take a moment to roll my eyes.)

These stories began to affect Logan, who soon realized she was going to be a part of the documentary and set out to secretly record some of the more suspect goings on at the school. Not only that, she wanted to hear directly from the students about what their experiences had been. What she saw and heard was not what she had expected, and when she was finally asked by the school to leave, she made it her mission to get David out.

The issue for David was that he was about to turn eighteen and wanted to graduate with all his friends back home in the states. But even though the DR is on American soil, he wasn’t allowed to leave. So he wrote a letter to his best friend and gave it to Logan to bring back with her. At that point, a group of David’s concerned friends put a plan into action to bring him home.

While this aspect of the story has a ticking clock type of urgency to it, it’s the footage of the school itself that is the most gripping. While there is certainly physical abuse going on (when you receive a low behavioral score you can receive "swats," which are basically hits with a wooden paddle), there was also psychological and emotional abuse at work: Having to ask to exit or enter a room. Standing facing a wall for extended periods of time. Being forced to stay in a "Q.R." - a small, grimy room with a flat mattress and not much else. Students had even admitted hearing horrible sounds coming from that room, not knowing what was taking place inside.

Teachers at the school maintain that manual labor and punitive pushups and sprints are "a way to show them the amount of pain they’re putting on everyone else [and] to put a little bit of pain on them." The school also advocates utilizing the student’s new surroundings and culture shock as a way to keep them off-center so they are more "malleable" and "workable."

What it is, plain and simple, is legal abuse. It’s legal because these schools are not regulated. There are thousands in the U.S. alone, with more outside of the U.S. When David states two men stormed into his room, tied a belt around his waist and dragged him into a car and through an airport, he likened it to kidnapping.

Because it is.

Julia Scheeres, a former student who wrote about her experiences in the book "Jesus Land," states that the school is "a dumping ground for wealthy evangelicals who have problem teenagers." What is the most shocking is that the parents of these children are clearly not looking at the root of the problems. David says that he was rebellious because he wasn’t being accepted by his parents for being gay. He was angry and frustrated. But rather than work on the family’s new dynamic, his parents chose to let someone else do it for them. Similarly, if you are prone to panic attacks, why is a child being sent away to deal with them when the cause of the attacks remains not discussed?

While Logan crosses the line by becoming a part of her own documentary, this is also the most compelling and the most heartening aspect. She is a woman who had beliefs that she eventually saw needed to be changed. She began to question her spirituality and began to think with her heart. When confronted with these things head on, she understood she could not turn away.

There are a few gaps in the film that would benefit from some follow up. Interviews with parents who felt they needed to send their kids away would have also been key in understanding the logic. But the film is still wholly compelling, if not enraging.

This is an important film, as this is a far bigger epidemic than many people probably realize. Credit must go to the teens willing to go on record about what they experienced, even if they ultimately thought it was a good thing. For David, his bravery in sharing his story and his ultimate victory in reclaiming his life is an inspiration to anyone who has ever felt repressed. So while there is much to be upset about here, there is much good that can come from it.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to ’Star Wars’ and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg. He can be seen in the flesh on the weekly PBS movie review series "Just Seen It."

This article is part of our "Cinema Q 2014" series. Want to read more? Here's the full list»

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