The essential problem of reviewing a documentary is separation of form from content. A documentary can be in ideological lock-step with me, but still be a bad movie, and certainly the other way; the amount of Jewish filmmakers influenced by Leni Riefenstahl’s sweeping cinematography is testament to that. Do I think that the youth behavior modification camps shown in Kidnapped for Christ are despicable? Certainly. Do they deserve an expose? 100%. Is Kidnapped for Christ good purely because it says things I agree with? Not at all.
The film looks at three kids sequestered in Escuela Caribe, a camp for “troubled teens” that is, for all intents and purposes, a re-education camp patronized by rich Christian parents who see something inconvenient or embarrassing in their children. Most often, we get the viewpoint of a young man who believes- with strong evidence to his case- that he was sent there purely because his parents don’t approve of him being gay. He’s the perfect subject, being a high-achiever, beloved by his classmates and neighbors, white, male, and conventionally attractive. As you might be able to tell by my description, he’s actually too perfect of a subject; there is no ambiguity about his wrongful placement in the facility. He is the center of the film because he is unimpeachable by any (liberal) group, and, consciously or not, chosen as the anchor because of the ease of selling him to the audience. The more interesting subjects — Tai, a young woman with a history of sexual abuse and a defiant attitude at the camp, and Beth, who has serious anxiety and self-harm problems and who express the most ambivalence towards the camp’s harm — are pushed aside for David’s somewhat interesting yet entirely predictable story.
That’s the crux of the problem with the film; it’s an issue piece, by which I mean its goal is to raise awareness about its particular issue. In order to get this across, it lays everything out in black and white, and never bothers to dive into the heart of the problem. Yes, these camps exist, but why do they exist? Why have they grown, why do parents use them, why did the industry develop? It makes glancing blows a few times, referencing how much money the schools make and how expensive tuition is, but it never seems more than passingly interested in the roots of the problem. Blackfish — one of 2013’s most powerful documentaries — was also, loosely, an issue piece, this one about the treatment of orcas in captivity. What made the film gripping, moving, and exceptional, however, was its deeper theme about the way we treat and think about non-human animals. It was about orcas, sure, but really it was about confinement, cruelty, and human hubris. Kidnapped for Christ is never about anything besides these camps; it’s not about much besides Escuela Caribe, specifically, until its last 10 minutes.
It’s not so much that Kidnapped for Christ is a poor movie; for the most part, I was interested enough not to check my email while watching it. But it doesn’t strive to do anything besides show you this thing that just about everyone would agree is wrong. That’s not a vision or a statement, it’s just average newsreporting, which, while somewhat valuable as a form of information distribution, is unmoving and unfocused as a film. It doesn’t have anything to say about a subject rich with viewpoints to look out from, and that, at the core of things, is its biggest problem.
Kidnapped for Christ will be playing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on 10 May 2014 as part of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
Directed by Kate S. Logan; written by Kate S. Logan and Yada Zamora; 85 minutes.