This Catch-Up is written by Telaina Eriksen
Year of Release: 2014
Rating: NR, documentary (I would guess PG/PG-13)
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No. (On Demand on ShowTime and free on several websites that I’m not willing to vouch for)
This documentary was recommended to me during a Facebook “conversation” about evangelicals’ continued desire to blame gayness on parenting, “No child of MINE is ever going to end up gay!” and some evangelicals’ belief that you can “pray gay away.” Filmmaker Kate Logan, an evangelical Christian herself, set out to make a heart-warming film about Escuela Caribe, the Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. She thought she would find troubled teens dealing with “their issues” through prayer, song, group therapy, etc. Instead, she encountered an infestation of mental, physical and possibly even sexual abuse.
Logan begins her slow descent into making a very different movie (as well as her transition to agnosticism) when she hears David’s story. David is a 17-year-old honors student from Colorado who has many friends, an active social life and ambitious plans for the future. He is on track to graduate with his high school class, has taken many AP classes and wants to apply to universities to study theater. That is, until his parents have him kidnapped and taken to the Dominican Republic because he has come out to them as gay. David says in the documentary, “My mother said to me, ‘I could never love a gay son,’” and so he is physically dragged from his own home in the middle of the night and flown to another country.
The most disturbing part of the documentary for me comes when David turns 18 at the “school.” He has already missed the chance to graduate from high school on time with his peers but he is hoping since he is now 18, and a full American citizen in the eyes of the law, that he will be able to leave the school of his own volition, regardless of the huge sum his parents pay each month to keep him at Escuela Caribe.
Logan at this point becomes an actor in her own movie. Much like Truman Capote hiring an attorney for Perry and Dick. I ask my students sometimes when we read In Cold Blood and watch Capote, where does life stop and art begin? Or, where does art stop and life begin? That line is a muddy one for many artists, and Logan finds herself unable to remain an impartial observer as David’s mental state grows more and more fragile.
This documentary wasn’t the first time I had heard about Escuela Caribe. In 2012, I read “Jesus Land” by Julia Scheeres. She and her brother David (yes, another David) were incarcerated there and she partially blames the school for her brother’s suicidal depression. Both Logan and Scheeres indicate that the mental brainwashing of the school and the “ranking” system (where low-ranking students have to literally ask to stand up and sit down in front of their “betters”) were actually harder to bear than the beatings, physical punishments and isolation (what Escuela Caribe quaintly called “the quiet room”). The administration of the school frequently tells the “students” that if they just “work the system” they can go home. Throughout the film, psychologically and physically vulnerable teenagers outwardly express their deep love for God and Christ with incredible terror in their eyes. This seems to me the logical conclusion of the Religious Right’s beliefs and policies. God’s love isn’t abundant and pure, it has to be beaten into these little teenage sinners, even though the vast majority of the time, the teenagers have been abused by the very families who sent them there.
In 2011, Escuela Caribe closed, due in part to its brave former “students” speaking out. It reopened under a different name, and kept many of the same staff members. There are still dozens of this type of “school” throughout the world, where American citizens are incarcerated against their will, by their parents, and some “students” are even 18 years old and have no way to leave the premises. Logan has more information about this on her website. And I invite you to click through.
While the effects and story-telling in this documentary are definitely not polished, its amateurishness and realness are two of its most compelling attributes. The viewer feels Logan’s pain and disillusionment as the sunny religion and God she has loved so much, heave up an ugly, dark reality in front of her very young eyes.