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Aaron Kaufman, as Robert Rodriguez’s longtime producing partner, is used to dealing with Hollywood stars, major studios and pleasing global audiences with genre movies like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Machete and Machete Kills. He even directed his own B-movie thriller, Urge, starring Pierce Brosnan and released by Lionsgate, and Kaufman and Rodriguez have a live-action adaptation of Frank Frazetta’s Fire and Ice in development at Sony Pictures.
But Kaufman tells The Hollywood Reporter he never talked much about being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, even after he eventually glided away from his faith and tried to never look back. That was until he watched Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, about the Church of Scientology.
“The top of my head blew off because there was so much that was similar between the Scientology experience and the Witness experience,” he recalled. That’s down to the jargon used by both organizations, for example, as Scientology calls the shunning of wayward members “disconnection,” while the Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to the same act of social exclusion as “disfellowshipping.”
And yet, the Church of Scientology, especially after Tom Cruise’s 2005 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, has come under a level of media scrutiny that the Jehovah’s Witnesses — and its Watchtower Bible and Tract Society leadership — have avoided.
Kaufman has aimed to change that with Vice Versa: Crusaders, an upcoming documentary from his production company, Lotus Land Entertainment, and Vice Studios, set to debut July 28 on Vice TV. “It was amazing to me that this religion, Scientology, which everybody thought was beyond the pale and crazy, was so similar to my experience as a Witness,” he explains, as both organizations prize secrecy and guarding against scandal, he adds.
Vice Versa: Crusaders, Kaufman’s first embrace of the unscripted realm, aims to expose a religion with clean-cut and polite members focused on Armageddon and future Paradise, even as its leadership has allegedly colluded to cover up allegations of child sexual abuse worldwide. When his early investigation connected with Mark O’Donnell, a former Jehovah’s Witness turned whistleblower, Kaufman says he gained access to stolen church documents that included a secret database of child abusers in the Witnesses’ ranks, created by the Watchtower headquarters to minimize legal risk.
“They created a de facto database of pedophiles within the organization, and they kept that database,” Kaufman said. But the Vice Versa: Crusaders director insists he didn’t want to get sidetracked into making a movie about pedophilia in the Jehovah’s Witnesses — as it had earlier been exposed in the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, as examples — as much as he sought to expose corruption at the top of the organization.
“What has happened with the Catholic Church and with the Witnesses is they have chosen to protect their organization directly over protecting their parishioners, whether that’s children or adults,” Kaufman argues. Vice Versa: Crusaders offers accounts of sexual abuse victims, who talk about their anguish and fears, over an organization that they claim actively works against them and turns family members against one other to keep total control over their lives.
That includes Barbara Anderson, an ex-Jehovah’s Witness who worked in the Watchtower headquarters; Amber Scorah, author of Leaving the Witness; Kameron Torres, another ex-Jehovah’s Witness and vlogger; and Kimmy O’Donnell, a former Jehovah’s Witness and activist who alleges she was abused by her mother, who enjoyed impunity.
After she brought her allegations to a church elder at age 12, “because it was my word against my mother’s, they would take no action,” O’Donnell says at one point in the documentary. In Vice Versa: Crusaders, Kaufman explains the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ two-witness rule, a key doctrine that states that, absent a confession, no member can be accused of committing a sin without two credible witnesses coming forward to offer corroboration.
The two-witness rule, Kaufman adds, prevents abused children like a young O’Donnell from getting help and remains central to Watchtower doctrine. “The idea that this malignancy is existing led me to take what I know how to do, which is to make films, and put that into the [film’s] subject,” he insists.
Additionally, while the Catholic Church has changed tack and begun, if only haltingly, to clean house, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have not. “This is the part that continues to blow my mind, that the Witnesses have in fact dug in their heels,” Kaufman adds, as he points to the Watchtower leadership racking up $2 million in fines as it refused to hand over its internal documents and database about admitted pedophiles to the state of California.
While Kaufman doubts the Watchtower leadership will be swayed by Vice Versa: Crusaders, and are more likely to explain the film away as the work of unbelievers, the director insists he set out to create a bulletproof doc series to avoid accusations of blindly conducting a witch hunt and to appeal to doubters within the Jehovah’s Witnesses ranks.
“We’ve gone through every word in the film to ensure it’s fact-checked and to know that people we interviewed didn’t just have a gripe against the religion or were critical. We wanted people that fundamentally had their lives altered because of the policies of the Witnesses,” he explained.
However, unlike the Church of Scientology, which has been accused of mounting campaigns of intimidation against accusers, Kaufman insisted smear campaigns are not in the Watchtower’s arsenal. “They’ll explain this movie is the work of Satan, and they’ll even go further and say this is a sign of the End Times and the Great Tribulation is coming because the media is turning on their religion,” he adds.
Next in the unscripted arena for Kaufman and Lotus Land: feature documentary Stealing Don Ho, about the late Hawaiian musician and “Tiny Bubbles” singer Don Ho, which is in development.
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