Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, administrators of “The Vow,” HBO’s restricted sequence about NXIVM, by no means need to hear the group referred to as solely “a intercourse cult” once more.
Though NXIVM made main information headlines three years in the past, first with a New York Instances story about DOS, a group-within-the-group that was amassing embarrassing materials on its members (referred to as “collateral”), as nicely as branding them and in some circumstances allegedly manipulating them into sexual conditions, the group itself was based in 1998 as a self-proclaimed “multi-level advertising firm.” Co-founder Keith Raniere led hundreds of workshops and lessons on self-improvement and self-actualization, and the corporate opened facilities around the globe. To label it simply a intercourse cult now, Amer tells Selection, is “deeply problematic.”
That’s the reason he and his spouse and documentary filmmaking accomplice Noujaim are “making an attempt to inform a story with dignity.” He explains, “Folks put a lot 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 in the end telling their tales to the New York Instances. In later episodes, actor Catherine Oxenberg additionally turns into a outstanding 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 aspect,” Noujaim tells Selection. “It began as a very private story. Mark was anyone I had recognized for 10 years at the moment and had at all times believed very a lot within the group and the moral mission of the group was all of a sudden speaking in a very completely 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 remembers, and met a variety of folks in it with whom she saved involved. That very same 12 months, she spoke with Vicente and “a couple of the opposite leaders within the group about doubtlessly making a movie” in regards to the group. However it 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 isn’t one they may 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 simply see in NXIVM you see additionally in a political get together, 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 lessons, as nicely as private cellphone conversations.
“The folks I had met weren’t drawn to a intercourse cult. Eighteen-thousand folks took self-improvement lessons; there was a small quantity that joined DOS. So lots of the those that knew me, knew that my intention was understanding, quite 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 will have the possibility to really feel what it’d truly be wish to be there,” she explains. “The primary precedence with making the present is humanizing the story: To take a problem that folks assume they perceive — that has been plastered and sensationalized throughout the headlines — and to try to put a nuanced, human face to it. And to take our time doing it. That’s the posh we’ve got as filmmakers, quite 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 among the extra depth that you simply see within the sequence. However on the introductory stage, which is what most individuals took, it’s fairly seemingly benign,” Amer says of NXIVM. “Quite a lot of the language you’d hear within the lessons was not that completely different from the language you’d hear in most components of L.A., with folks speaking to their life coach. It’s a lot of the identical self-actualization, ‘you may turn out to be what you need to turn out to be; you management the way you need to really feel,’ radical self-reliance. That has a stunning facet to it, however as we see on this story, that will also be a gateway to abuse: abuse by a group, abuse of your self, which I feel is admittedly attention-grabbing and sophisticated, and abuse of others.”
This contains protecting 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 very open coronary heart and open thoughts and a need to study,” and notes she had a “actual innocence about her” to start with. (Noujaim additionally provides that she did meet Mack a few occasions in her earlier days with NXIVM.) Mack will be seen in archival footage from lessons, promotional movies and private recordings in “The Vow,” not a new, unique interview. However that’s not to say the filmmakers wouldn’t need 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 concerning Allison. She is a human being asking these questions of herself and eager 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 vital issues we are able to do.”
As “The Vow” airs, the destiny of NXIVM’s members nonetheless looms. Folks such as Edmondson, Vicente and Piesse are nonetheless grappling with the time they misplaced whereas devoting their power to the group, as nicely as 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 lessons — which she did in 2017, not too lengthy earlier than the New York Instances 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 residing underneath home arrest, however her sentencing was delayed, partly as a result of 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 clear ending as a result of it’s about a “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, as against 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.