The Fundamentalist Cult Warren Jeffs Built: An Interview With Prophet's Prey Director Amy Berg
In June 2005, the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Warren Jeffs, was charged with sexual assault of a minor. Jeffs went on the run, and over a year later, he was finally caught with one of his wives, one of his brothers, four computers, 16 cell phones, three wigs, and 12 pairs of sunglasses. This was the first that most Americans had ever heard of Jeffs, but his reign and influence had been far-reaching within his community for the past two decades.
In director Amy Berg’s latest documentary, Prophet’s Prey, she takes us through the twists and turns of this secretive polygamous, fundamentalist cult and the events that led to Jeffs’ 2006 arrest while looking into the inner workings of the FLDS church. It’s a gripping and disturbing film to watch, but to anyone familiar with Berg’s previous works, Academy Award-nominated Deliver Us From Evil (about sex abuse in the Roman Catholic church) and An Open Secret (about sex abuse scandals in the film industry), it’s just another expose in her crusade against those who would do harm against children.
Berg, despite not having been brought up in any sort of religious environment, has become known for her portrayal of the darker side of it. I was able to speak to Berg about her documentary on the phone last week. She told me, “I have always been bothered by systemic abuse, whether religious or not. I’m a storyteller first and I’m really happy that some of my films have been able to offer change for those who need it. It’s good for us to be educated on brainwashing and the exploitation of women and children.”
In that spirit, the film will hopefully accomplish its purpose. And it’s doing well. When it opened at the Sundance Festival in January, it received critical acclaim, and has drawn comparisons to Alex Gibney’s Going Clear documentary that was produced by HBO at around the same time. While a take down of the Church of Scientology exposes the rich, famous, and powerful—a take down of the FLDS church might not have the same appeal in popularity. After all, the people most negatively affected by their policies are practically nobodies: overly religious women and children. The only big name is Jeffs himself, and he’s already in jail, so everything else is fine, right?
The film is an adaptation of Sam Brower’s book, Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints. Brower is a private investigator who became particularly interested in the case against the FLDS commune after hearing a case about Ross Chatwin, who was kicked out of the commune and in danger of losing his home, his family, and his job.
It was 2004, prior to Jeffs’ charges, and Brower was shocked at how little the authorities seemed to take the case of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, located in their settlement between the twin cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz. Despite accusations of sexual abuse, no one seemed to want to pursue the leadership of their church. After all, they weren’t bothering anybody, were they? They kept to themselves. And more importantly, they were just practicing their freedom of religion.
Prophet’s Prey has been well-received in Utah, where it won an award at DocUtah for best directing. Berg held a two-day screening of the documentary in Salt Lake City in March. Word of mouth got out, and Berg said, “Five hundred people were turned away from the second screening because there were so many people.” I expressed my curiosity about this to Brower, who is a member of the mainstream Church of Latter-Day Saints. Were Mormons actively trying to separate themselves from the fundamentalist branch of the church?
“They’re outraged, like I was,” he said. “Who’s not outraged by child abuse?” Who, indeed.
Berg and Brower both seemed to express the same thing throughout the interviews. Surprise. Shock. Horror. Yes, at the systematic sexual abuse of children in a fundamentalist cult. But also, that even after the imprisonment of Jeffs, there has been little change at the settlement. And as of today, the cult-like commune still stands.
Jeffs, who according to Brower has herniated knees from so much time spent in prayer, may be in federal prison for the rest of his life. There may even technically be a new leader of the FLDS. But they still consider Jeffs to be the prophet. And, they still listen to what he says. Jeffs’ nephews and former FLDS members, Matt and Zack Jeffs, have stated that Warren Jeffs maintains a level of control, even behind bars.
The movie, which opened in a limited release this Friday, is a good watch. It’s informative, interesting, and has the shock factor. If you know nothing about the FLDS church, you’ll walk away feeling more educated. But you might be left with a feeling of malaise, too. Because, it’s all still there. Even with Jeffs’ arrest, not much has changed. With almost 10,000 members of the FLDS in play, their numbers match any organized crime syndicate out there. And Berg and Brower are both hoping that with the release of this documentary, that something might change.
“[They’re] committing the most vile crimes imaginable,” said Brower. “Kidnapping, tax fraud, child molestation, human trafficking, blackmail. If you had something like that going on in a larger city, there would be tons of outrage and special prosecutors. They’d be converging on it and doing something about the problem. It’s been an uphill battle.”
And Berg agrees: “We don’t understand how this happens, but it happens in religious organizations on a daily basis.”
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @notreallyjcm.