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By Sam Weisberg
Kate Logan's Kidnapped for Christ is a documentary in the same vein as Jesus Camp, indicting an evangelical cult's brainwashing of children. On the surface, the atmosphere at Escuela Caribe -- the Dominican Republic boarding school where "troubled" teens were sent for religious rehabilitation from 1972 until its closing in 2011 -- may seem less nightmarish than, say, Jesus Camp's assembly of youngsters in war paint, chanting about the bravery of jihadists.
But Kidnapped turns out to be more disturbing because it is not, at its outset, a polemic. Logan, 28, who began filming at Escuela Caribe in 2006, is just as naïve to the school's ritualistic horrors as we are, and just as shocked to discover them. Then a devout Christian film student who had worked as a missionary abroad, she initially intended to tout the school's devotion to exposing kids to foreign cultures.
"It was not like that at all," said Logan. "The students weren't even allowed to say hello to the Dominicans."
If not for the optimistic nature of her assignment, the school may never have granted her one-on-one time with several scared students. Their whispery yet detailed confessions tell of the staff's Orwellian monitoring of letters sent home, of paddle beatings and prolonged isolation periods administered for minor infractions to arbitrary rules.
"One of the first days I was there, I saw a girl scrubbing the cement steps outside the school for at least eight hours, and she was reprimanded for resting her knees on the ground. She had to be in a crouched position without taking a knee," Logan recalled. "That didn't seem very therapeutic."
As Logan's viewpoint began to change, the school in turn grew increasingly suspicious of her methods. Logan's fly-on-the-wall approach -- facilitated by her mastery of a wireless boom -- proved essential for capturing certain stomach-churning episodes firsthand, such as a girl being forced to do chin-ups before dinner after having a panic attack.
"People with mental health problems, like they felt suicidal, would be swatted on the ass or given tons of exercises or put in the quiet room," says Logan. "It was treated like rebellion, not like a cry for help."
At the center of Kidnapped for Christ is a terrified homosexual teen named David, whose parents sent him to Escuela Caribe for reconditioning. Logan, whose project was eventually halted for years due to threats from the school and David's family, purposefully leaves viewers in suspense on what ultimately happened to David.
But the most harrowing moments of Logan's painstaking debut are also the most ephemeral: fleeting shots of the so-called "obedient" kids and their complacent partaking in events that disgust the skeptical ones, such as mud wrestling and Christian rap contests. These youths -- and the same anxiety-prone girl who later reflects that the school "saved my life" -- are the most damaged, and deserve a follow-up film of their own.
"Students that fell into line quickly, whether it was by ratting out other kids or being the type of person that staff members just liked better, probably had an easier time," says Logan. "But, honestly, anyone who claims they were helped by the program, I kind of view it, like, if you get in a car crash and almost die, you can learn something, but it doesn't mean that the car crash was good.
"Some of the kids go into the program being in trouble with drugs or the law, and then they come out sober and finish high school, and maybe learn some discipline," she continues. "It's easier to look at that and say, ‘Well, it did some good,' than to say, ‘I was abused unnecessarily for three years.'"
Indeed, the cult-like nature of the school likely encouraged many of its "graduates" to stay quiet about the physical and sexual abuses endured -- or, perhaps, the few parents that were informed didn't believe their children. No lawsuits have ever been filed against Escuela Caribe. The school's closure was not, according to Logan, directly due to widespread reports of these abuses -- most notably Escuela Caribe alum Julia Scheeres's 2005 memoir, Jesus Land -- though the furor may have caused its gradual enrollment fallout. And the bad press didn't prevent a new reform school, Crosswinds, which employs many former Escuela Caribe staff members, from opening on the same property.
"I've got several contacts from the Dominican Republic that want the government to investigate," says Logan, who now considers herself an agnostic. "But really, I hope Crosswinds eventually just goes out of business because no parents will risk sending their kid there."
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