‘The Vow’ Filmmakers on Displaying NXIVM as Extra Than a ‘Intercourse Cult’

Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, administrators of “The Vow,” HBO’s restricted sequence about NXIVM, by no means wish to hear the group known as solely “a intercourse cult” once more.

Though NXIVM made main information headlines three years in the past, first with a New York Occasions story about DOS, a group-within-the-group that was amassing embarrassing materials on its members (referred to as “collateral”), in addition to branding them and in some instances allegedly manipulating them into sexual conditions, the group itself was based in 1998 as a self-proclaimed “multi-level advertising and marketing firm.” Co-founder Keith Raniere led hundreds of workshops and courses on self-improvement and self-actualization, and the corporate opened facilities around the globe. To label it only a intercourse cult now, Amer tells Selection, is “deeply problematic.”

That’s the reason he and his spouse and documentary filmmaking associate Noujaim are “making an attempt to inform a narrative with dignity.” He explains, “Folks put loads of religion within the documentary. I’m not saying we’re right here to proper all wrongs, however we’re making an attempt to assist deliver in additional nuance.”

Over the nine-episode first season, Amer and Noujaim primarily observe Sarah Edmondson, Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse, three former members of NXIVM who devoted their lives and careers to Raniere’s teachings for years earlier than finally telling their tales to the New York Occasions. In later episodes, actor Catherine Oxenberg additionally turns into a distinguished determine in “The Vow” as she fights to get her daughter India out of Raniere’s clutches.

“We have been following the story lengthy earlier than there was any information ingredient,” Noujaim tells Selection. “It began as a really private story. Mark was anyone I had identified for 10 years at the moment and had all the time believed very a lot within the group and the moral mission of the group was rapidly speaking in a really totally different means, questioning all the pieces that he believed, and it was very a lot a disaster of religion.”

Noujaim took NXIVM’s “flagship introductory class” in 2010, she recollects, and met quite a few folks in it with whom she saved in touch. That very same 12 months, she spoke with Vicente and “a few the opposite leaders within the group about probably making a movie” in regards to the group. But it surely wasn’t till 2017 that she completed that class and now, in 2020, that she and Amer are ending the documentary — though the story the documentary is telling shouldn’t be one they might have predicted when first listening to about NXIVM.

“The elemental foundation of most religions is a type of give up to an moral mission, and I’m not saying that NXIVM is a faith, however in some ways the dynamics that you just see in NXIVM you see additionally in a political occasion, in non secular organizations,” Amer says.

Noujaim says her private connections inside NXIVM “completely” helped acquire entry to pivotal items of fabric for “The Vow” — from in-depth interviews to video and audio recordings of NXIVM conferences and courses, in addition to private cellphone conversations.

“The folks I had met weren’t drawn to a intercourse cult. Eighteen-thousand folks took self-improvement courses; there was a small quantity that joined DOS. So most of the those that knew me, knew that my intention was understanding, reasonably than some type of take-down movie,” she says.

Utilizing such footage was important to the filmmakers to place the viewers inside their topics’ experiences. “You may have the prospect to really feel what it would truly be prefer to be there,” she explains. “The primary precedence with making the present is humanizing the story: To take a problem that folks suppose they perceive — that has been plastered and sensationalized throughout the headlines — and to attempt to put a nuanced, human face to it. And to take our time doing it. That’s the luxurious we now have as filmmakers, reasonably than journalists.”

Each Amer and Noujaim evaluate telling the story of NXIVM — from its creation to the abuse of energy that ultimately went on inside it — to “peeling again the layers of an onion.” That’s the reason they begin with the group’s earlier days and seemingly optimistic intentions, earlier than diving deep into the subsets that started to warp the unique message and mission.

“It’s a gradual stepping stone to get to a few of the extra depth that you just see within the sequence. However on the introductory degree, which is what most individuals took, it’s fairly seemingly benign,” Amer says of NXIVM. “A whole lot of the language you’d hear within the courses was not that totally different from the language you’d hear in most elements of L.A., with folks speaking to their life coach. It’s loads of the identical self-actualization, ‘you possibly can grow to be what you wish to grow to be; you management the way you wish to really feel,’ radical self-reliance. That has a ravishing facet to it, however as we see on this story, that can be a gateway to abuse: abuse by a neighborhood, abuse of your self, which I feel is admittedly fascinating and complex, and abuse of others.”

This consists of masking actor Allison Mack’s involvement with Raniere and later JNESS (a girls’s “empowerment” group that was born of a patriarchal mind-set) and DOS.

Noujaim calls Mack somebody who “got here into the group, very clearly, with a really open coronary heart and open thoughts and a need to be taught,” and notes she had a “actual innocence about her” at first. (Noujaim additionally provides that she did meet Mack a couple of instances in her earlier days with NXIVM.) Mack could be seen in archival footage from courses, promotional movies and private recordings in “The Vow,” not a brand new, unique interview. However that’s not to say the filmmakers wouldn’t wish to inform her facet of the story.

“As a result of we’ve seen that,” Noujaim says of Mack’s aforementioned vulnerability depicted inside “The Vow,” “we all know that there’s a a lot deeper story to the story that has been informed throughout the headlines relating to Allison. She is a human being asking these questions of herself and desirous to dwell a extra moral life, and I feel that, as a human inhabitants, understanding and having empathy with folks is likely one of the most essential issues we will do.”

As “The Vow” airs, the destiny of NXIVM’s members nonetheless looms. Folks equivalent to Edmondson, Vicente and Piesse are nonetheless grappling with the time they misplaced whereas devoting their vitality to the group, in addition to blended emotions about their involvement, particularly when contemplating what number of different folks they introduced into the group. (Vicente was the one who inspired Noujaim to complete her courses — which she did in 2017, not too lengthy earlier than the New York Occasions article got here out.) Different members could also be struggling equally and will even be the topics of a future season of the present. “We reached out to everyone concerned — many individuals, on all sides of the story — and we’re persevering with to movie,” Noujaim says.

In the meantime, Raniere was convicted of intercourse trafficking and a number of counts of conspiracy in June 2019 and is scheduled to be sentenced in October 2020. Mack was arrested for intercourse trafficking, intercourse trafficking conspiracy and compelled labor conspiracy and has been dwelling beneath home arrest, however her sentencing was delayed, partially because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Amer calls the timing of the present airing across the time of supposed sentencing “full luck” and notes that “The Vow” could not have a transparent ending as a result of it’s a few “second in time.”

He explains: “It’s actually about the place they start and the place they finish, with an understanding of the place they’ve gotten to, versus being a historic doc that’s chronicling each occasion of the story. It’s ‘A NXIVM Story,’ not the definitive NXIVM story.”

“The Vow” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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