Mia Donovan’s cerebral Deprogrammed, is a film about empathy. She shows the viewer what can happen when interpersonal understanding fails. This Hot Docs 2015 documentary shows the audience that what you don’t know is sometimes more important than what you do. Most importantly, we are asked where to “draw the line between personal expression and undue influence.”
At the core of the film is Ted “Black Lightning” Patrick, the innovator of a controversial mental counselling approach known as deprogramming. Patrick’s technique of deprogramming gained widespread attention during the proliferation of the new religious movement in 1970s California. As hippy idealism started to crumble, a new wave of communal living rose with the tide. Charismatic leaders like Reverend Moon and Lightning Amen toted a religious order to attract young people looking for a greater sense of belonging. Parents lost sight of their kids for long periods of time only to see them return glassy-eyed.
Patrick experienced this first hand with his own son. One day, during a family vacation in San Diego, Michael Patrick wandered off and went missing for a number of hours. After finally returning, Michael was never the same. Dazed and confused, this once sporty boy was now locking himself in his room reading the bible all night. As a concerned father, Ted Patrick started to investigate. A special community representative for then-Governor Ronald Reagan, Black Lightning was endorsed to bring his method to the madness.
The origin of the nickname Black Lightning, retold in a contemporary interview with the man himself, came about from his swiftness in abducting the afflicted. After concerned parents filed missing person reports to little avail, they went the private route and got a hold of Mr. Patrick. Channelling the Private Investigator mold, Mr. Patrick followed his targets from afar and then swooped in quickly like some bad black lightning. Then, the deprogramming ensued. Holding the subject in custody against his/her will, Patrick would ask the person a series of questions until he and the detainee’s family deemed the subject deprogrammed. Sometimes this would take a few hours, other times a few days. One former subject of Black Lightning’s practices speaks in the film saying that the practice was disorienting. It took away all sense of time and place and created a torturous result.
What makes Deprogrammed a memorable film is that it raises ethical dilemmas of history and humanity. Most of the non-interview footage is found, but Donovan is excellent at editing meditative shots of cultish behaviour with an eerie score. After hearing one subject share his experiences of being a member of a religious family, Donovan cuts to montages of groups of people holding hands, chanting, staring, and embracing one another. You feel like you’re being transported to the ideal setting of sunny California, yet something is off.
Deprogrammed is also a personal film, as Donovan has a direct connection to Ted Patrick. Her one-time stepbrother, Matthew, was one of the last known deprogramming cases to be treated by Black Lightning. Matthew serves as the link between the new religious movement of the 70s and the devil worshipping movement of the late 80s/early 90s. As a young teen Matthew misbehaved, listened to heavy metal records, and sacrificed animals. His father, seemingly out of solutions, contacted Patrick to conduct a deprogramming. Matthew contends it did more harm than good, “pouring gasoline on an already lit fire.”
It would be easy for the director to condemn the forceful nature of the deprogrammer because of all the actions against his method. Yet, the audience can sympathize with Black Lightning. We see a very charismatic man from an impoverished Tennessean family. His mother made little money to support her many children and most of it was donated to the local church pastor. Patrick had a problem with this, he explains, because he viewed the religious institution in his community to be exploitative. When faced with the religious institution once again interfering with his own family’s life, he took it upon himself to act. He didn’t want to see people seduced against their will.
Patrick did not possess enough of a varied repertoire to impact the more complex cases. His methods were full of force and repetition to break down his subjects. He would even go as far as physically restraining those who tried to leave the conversation. Donovan gains access to Patrick’s personal archives. These private video recordings show the proceedings of deprogrammings past. Rather than seeing a technician with a power for rehabilitation, we see a man confident in a very limited tool.
The film asks if the recipients of Patrick-led interventions might not have been brainwashed at all. Instead, we wonder if they were lost. A lot of parents, with their high expectations, struggled to understand why their kids were leaving home for such an indeterminate future. It would be easiest to call them brainwashed. But, like any question regarding mental states, this is not so cut and dry. The case of Black Lightning represents this struggle and subtly captures this in the film.
Black Lightning is a multi-faceted personality trying to cope with the changing times. During past and present interviews, he was and is a cool man. In one remarkably engaging televised interview from 1973, when asked about the qualifications he has to intervene in young people’s lives, he says he has a university degree in common sense. He talks the talk here and portrays himself as a man of profound introspection. When it’s time to watch him conduct a deprogramming, we see a different side. It’s like all the festering exasperation and rage is shot out of a cannon from his soul on an unexpected recipient. He doesn’t allow himself to let go. He also shows pain in a personal interview about his family and his son’s death.
This is a film rich in plot and questions. What happens inside a brainwashed mind? What happens to one after being deprogrammed? Donovan shows how little understanding there is among people in this world… which might be the most heartbreaking fact of all.