Prophet’s Prey is the chilling new documentary from director Amy Berg examining the life and cruelty of American cult leader Warren Jeffs.
Review by Katrina Conaglen at Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Amy Berg, whose brilliant documentary West of Memphis (2012) precisely and effectively examined the miscarriage of justice in the case of the “convicted” murderers the West Memphis Three, here turns her forensic eye to the case of Warren Jeffs, the cult leader who used his position of power to execute a catalogue of atrocities and abuse.
Jeffs rose to power as the “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-Day Saints, an offshoot of the Mormon faith that still practices polygamy, founded by this ancestors in the 1830s. A potted history of the Church is delivered by the sonorous Nick Cave at the film’s start (Cave and his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis also provide the eerie, unnerving score). Accompanied by a cartoon, the glibness of Cave’s delivery does not prepare you for the frankly stomach-turning story to follow.
With first hand accounts from both the private investigators that tracked him, members of the Jeffs family, and two of his former wives, we learn how Jeffs amassed more and more power as the church leader. He took over 90 wives, ever younger (one of whom was 12 when he wed her) and raped and molested both these girls and other members of the church.
There is rightful pride from the private investigators at the resourcefulness and tenacity with which they finally caught their foe, a feat made all the more remarkable given that the Church purportedly has all local authorities and townspeople in its back pocket. Jeffs was caught and finally convicted of these crimes, along with acting as an accomplice in organising the marriages of many of his male followers to underage women, in 2007.
What compels his followers to stay? There are currently thought to be 10,000 members of the Church living in the United States. “A man must have at least three wives or he will not enter Heaven,” the cult decrees, a way of life that demands the sacrifice of a hundred little liberties: no television, no internet, no pets, no dancing, no wearing red.
That their leader, the “prophet”, is currently incarcerated on multiple rape charges, has not deterred his followers, who believe the imprisonment of their leader is just another test of faith from God. Berg offers no perfunctory answers to their baffling compliance: rather, she leaves you with the sense that these are simply people unlucky enough to be born into an indoctrinated culture, with no notion that escape is possible or perhaps even necessary.
To say this is a chilling portrait of a deeply troubled man feels insufficient: the meditative power of Jeffs’ voice, heard in voice-over reading his “decrees”, combined with the plain-spoken accounts of the evil he perpetrated from some of his victims, seeps into your blood-stream, and will leave you deeply unnerved (There is audio tape of his time with a 12 year old girl which is horrifying).
With such subject matter, the filmmaking needs must be excellent to prevent an interest in the story from seeming prurient, and Berg excels herself. The story unfolds in a compelling fashion, the interweaving of Jeffs’ deposition (he continually pleads the Fifth, in a remorseless monotone) with his victims’ accounts and a wealth of archival photographs fluid and riveting. It’s terrible, powerful viewing.