Lance Bass on His Doc Exposing Abusive Christian Reform Schools: 'My Jaw Dropped' (Q&A)
At age 20, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Kate Logan first heard of Escuela Caribe, a small Christian reform school in a remote area of the Dominican Republic where American parents were sending their troubled teens. A devout evangelist and enthusiastic documentarian, Logan intended to report on the struggling youth and the idea that the power of Christ could save them. As she delved deeper into the story, she discovered an issue more worthy of attention -- namely, the thousands of teens who were unwillingly sent to these reform schools, where they experienced painful punishments based on their sexual orientation and mental health disorders.
Kidnapped for Christ focuses on the story of a boy named David, who was sent to Escuela Caribe shortly after coming out to his parents, and 16-year-old Tai who was forced to go after experimenting with drugs to cope with childhood traumas.
Logan was joined on the project by former 'N Sync member Lance Bass, Transformers producer Tom DeSanto and Mike C. Manning, star of Disney's Cloud 9. As executive producers of the film, Bass, DeSanto and Manning took a step further to initiate a change.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the four filmmakers about the documentary, which recently premiered at the 20th annual Slamdance Film Festival on Jan. 17 in Park City and will screen again on Wednesday, Jan. 22.
With the diverse background each of you have in film, predominantly fiction work, what sparked your involvement in Kidnapped for Christ?
Mike C. Manning: It's interesting how I got involved because I knew the protagonist, David, from college. He mentioned to me one night how he's coming to L.A. to shoot a follow-up interview with Kate. After I heard his experiences of being dragged from his own house to the months of punishments he had to tolerate at the school, I was shocked, emotional and couldn't say anything except, "How can I help?"
Lance Bass: Mike was actually the one who called me and got me involved. I was familiar with this issue from hearing so many hidden stories of teenagers. When I first saw Kate's footage, my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe how in-depth she got with the school and what she uncovered. I love documentaries so much because they start off being about "this" and end up being so completely different than what you expected.
Tom DeSanto: I built a feature in 2004 on this subject matter based on a close friend who was also abducted from his bed and whose individuality had been hammered out of him, but I couldn't get traction with it. Mike Manning, the hub of the wheel who assembled the team, showed me the footage and it affected my heart. You feel abandoned watching it, and we wanted to send them the message that "we are here to back them up."
Kate, you were able to film in secrecy and you capture horrific footage. What moment did you know you'd uncovered a story?
Kate Logan: In 2004, I was a senior in college taking film classes in Haiti. There was a civil unrest and we had to be evacuated. Since we couldn't fly, we ended up traveling to a little town [across the border in the Dominican Republic] in the mountains [where Escuela Caribe is located]. At the time, I had no idea anything controversial was going on in the school. A few years later, I got the idea to return and make a documentary. As we were filming, we heard completely different stories from students than we heard from the staff -- that was my first clue. After a couple days, I saw things that made me feel uncomfortable. I wondered why students were performing hours of labor, like scrubbing the stairs without being allowed to bend their knees, or scrubbing a bowl for eight hours while facing a wall. I thought, "What's the point of humiliating students?" The longer we were there, the more we noticed the results of their treatment. As a psychologist's daughter, I knew very well this was not therapy, nor was it legal.
In terms of production, how much of your contribution was creative content and how much of it was budgeting?
Manning: When the team came together in 2012, it quickly evolved. We started with a campaign, and eventually with the help of Red Thorn Productions, it expanded. I took on the fundraising and marketing -- we've had two Indiegogo campaigns and one Kickstarter campaign -- utilized social media and NationBuilder for call-to-action. We didn't want this to end as soon as the lights came on after the movie.
Bass: We've managed to build a following on social media that has been extremely supportive. These were people who have had similar experiences and it's the first time they've spoken up about it.
DeSanto: When Mike came over in August of last year to view the screening, I wanted to help right away and brought in connections from WME, who represented the film [along with Preferred Content], and editor Sean Yates, who previously worked on a music video with me. We helped restructure the film to make it a personal story.
What did you find challenging about this documentary versus previous ones you've worked on? Lance, your big documentary was Mississippi I Am.
Bass: Yes, I would say the challenges were almost similar in terms of the characters. The biggest challenge with the Mississippi I Am documentary was finding the subjects. At the time it was hard to announce anything or anyone LGBTQ. With Kate here …
Logan: I would say filming at the school was the most difficult part -- and earning the students' trust. They would get into a lot of trouble if anything negative was said. We had to communicate in nonverbal, subtle ways. We got lucky with the main character, David, who we managed to interview alone. He had been in school for only a month and was desperate. The second character, Tai, didn't care if she got in trouble. She wanted someone to know the truth.
Bass: And there is nothing produced about these characters and their stories. Most people who see the characters will be able to relate well.
Mike, you're fairly new to producing. What did you take away from working in this team? How have you all been affected?
Manning: I never thought I'd love documentary films so much. I've only produced fictional material, so I was excited to learn about the process. I definitely don't want this to be my last documentary. The common thread is, "We care about this issue." We wanted to help Kate get the story out there. At the end of the day, it's an issue that is greater than ourselves and affects millions of people.
Bass: The team we have here -- I don't think it would surprise too many, If people knew us individually -- they would know we like to stand up for social issues. Of all the things I've produced in my career, documentaries are my favorite. Education sucks all over the world, so it's important that documentaries like these exist to help inform. We just want to make families aware of what danger these government-backed schools can do to teens.
DeSanto: It's an important story that has been hidden in the shadows, and it will really put the spotlight on a powerful issue.
When people hear the word documentary, it's not necessarily something they run to see immediately. How do you think viewers will connect to this?
DeSanto: I agree. The general audience does not run to documentaries. But this is an exposé. It's Kate's personal story of blind faith. She herself is an evangelist and her heart was in the right place. She stuck with her moral decision and the film is the result of her questioning. Just because you're a religious organization doesn't give you the right to abuse the law because you're under the mask of Christianity. As a group, it was a passion project. For me, personally, as a recovering Catholic, it resonated with me.
After the Slamdance screening on Friday and the second one on Wednesday, what's next for Kidnapped for Christ?
Manning: We are going to encourage the media to have people constantly check the website, KidnappedforChrist.com. We have a forum where teens and parents can discuss their experiences and find some closure. We're excited about the next steps and will update the website as frequently as we can.
DeSanto: Our online database is for people who want to get involved, but don't know how. It's the cry for action and changing the reality of the situation.