Documentary ambushed during Slamdance screening
Cult members hijack Q & A after "Children of God"
Press » The Park Record » 2007-01-31
By Dan Bischoff
Noah Thomson's five-year struggle to make the documentary "Children of God: Lost and Found" exhausted him physically and emotionally.
"It was an emotional roller coaster ride," Thomson said. "I've lived all over the world and been in trying situations, but nothing has taken me to an abyss like this did."
His film documents the lives of former members of the cult-like group known as "Children of God." Thomson was a former member of the cult, but his mother still belongs to what is now called "the Family."
The reward for his years of work was being accepted in the Slamdance Film Festival. But the question-and-answering session following the screening wasn't a warm welcome to the film industry.
"Obviously, I was blindsided," Noah said.
Family members of Children of God traveled across country to protest the film in Park City. Without ever seeing it, they dispersed flyers on Main Street declaring Thomson a liar. The protest culminated in a heated diatribe following the film.
"It was emotionally-charged and had an element of surprise to it," said producer Randy Barbato, who has also worked on projects such as "Inside Deep Throat" and "Eyes of Tammy Faye."
When Thomson got up to speak, a woman from the audience approached the microphone and took over the discussion.
"She basically attacked him and the film in terms of it being truthful and honest," Barbato said.
Barbato said Thomson kept his cool and let the woman speak for about 10 minutes. The monitor of the event said "this was not a debate" and told her to sit down.
"I said, 'Let her talk, she has her opinion,'" Thomson said.
"Noah never lost his temper even though there was a heated exchange going on and other people in the audience were getting annoyed," Barbato said. "This went on for ten minutes and this woman was yelling and eventually sat down because the audience was booing."
In his movie, Thomson documents his experiences and those of others in the cult.
"Noah, the filmmaker, has been so careful and thoughtful about that. It was a No. 1 concern. Most films or pieces you see about the family are tabloids; you don't see someone talking about the good times he had," Barbato said. "With the good, he included the bad, they don't want anything bad (shown), no matter what."
Thomson talks about his respect of his mother but he couldn't ignore certain circumstances.
"I interviewed someone who was sexually abused at six years old. I say, 'This might hurt my mom, but how can I turn my back on this?'"
Because of Thomson's fairness in the film, they didn't expect the backlash from the Family.
"I never experienced anything like it," Barbato said. "It was such a surprise to all of us. Everyone's eyes were darting around. She was filled with such anger and rage towards Noah, it didn't match the film that everyone had just seen."
As the incident raged on, Barbato noticed the lady had a microphone and another member of the Family carried a video camera. It drew immediate suspicion that they had filmed the documentary.
"Clearly, this girl and another man had an agenda," Barbato said. "She had a camera and that's when I thought, 'What's going on? Did she tape the film?' Any kind of taping is illegal."
It escalated at this point. At the steps of Treasure Mountain were roughly 10 family members. Barbato followed them outside, demanding they turn over their cameras.
"I said, 'We're calling the police,'" Barbato said. "It quickly got kind of heated and they started to leave and we followed them up the street. We didn't want them to leave until the police got there."
The police finally came and it turned out, all they recorded was the discussion following the film.
"The way that Noah was ambushed at the screening, I really think that all of us were taken by surprise and we didn't know what to expect," Barbato said. "Everything that went on was so suspicious, and giving our history of trying to make this film, we were as cautious as possible."
Barbato, however, understands the Family's position but thinks the protestors hurt their image even more by displaying their actions.
"Sadly, for the people and The Family who came out to protest the film, the way they went about it reinforced the stereotypes," Barbato said. "Noah's film does a much better job of representing some of the good work that some of the people in the Family do than the protesters of the film.
"Noah respects a lot of their work," Barbato said. "That's what makes the whole thing even sadder.
Thomson claims he had no intention to make a commentary on the cult as a whole.
"I'm not an activist, I'm a filmmaker and I chose to make a film about my life within the group and after the group," Thomson said.
"I think I expressed that clearly in the film. "The incident was discouraging. I actually hoped that when they saw the film, they would feel it was a fair piece done on them. It's addressing abuse and so forth but I also wanted to humanize them."
Thomson said creating this film may have been a "nail in the coffin" to his dwindling relationship with his mother.
"When it comes down to it, I love my mother and I don't want to misrepresent her," Thomson said. "That whole incident was discouraging as a filmmaker, I told an honest story, my story, and some other people that were hurt by the group and they painted us as being complete liars."
Before "Children of God" came to Slamdance, Thomson told Barbato, "I can never enjoy the success of this film."
"It's a bittersweet moment in a bittersweet journey," Barbato said. "He gets to go to Slamdance and can't move forward in his life."