Documentaries which focus on uncovering the evils of religion are a particular favourite of mine to watch, and this documentary is no exception, despite its harrowing and sickening subject matter. Prophet’s Prey (2015) is directed by Amy Berg, whose specialty as a documentarian appears to be in exposing crimes against children within the context of their society or religion at large; beginning with as her Academy Award nominated documentary Deliver Us From Evil (2006), which explored numerous reports of child sexual abuse by defrocked Catholic priest Oliver O’Grady. Prophet’s Prey focuses its lens on a different religion, and different leader, perpetrating similar crimes. The synopsis of the film is as follows:
Prophet’s Prey is a disturbing and shocking examination of Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. When Warren Jeffs rose to lead the FLDS he brought his dictatorial and sadistic desires to bear on a society that was all too vulnerable to exploitation. The FLDS was already a paternalistic religion with a history of polygamous and underaged marriage, yet Warren managed to expand these practices in unprecedented ways, bridging the gap between sister wives and ecclesiastically-justified rape. Like any good religious tale, it boils down to sex, greed, and the preservation of wealth. (source)
It is important to note that Prophet’s Prey begins with an expressive animation that tells the story of the origins of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) religious movement – making very clear the divide between the LDS Church, the Mormon theology, and the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) Church, and the religion’s history with and differing views on polygamy. It’s also important to write this paragraph first in my review, because it would be very easy for anyone – given the brutal and shocking nature of this film – to generalise the actions of the Fundamentalist LDS Church across to the other theologies of this particular religion. As should be the rule with fundamentalism and religion, it’s pretty important to keep those with fundamentalist beliefs in a theoretical box of their very own before thinking about generalising towards other strands within the religion. But when it comes to one Warren Jeffs, it’s probably best to keep him in a physical box of his very own for a long time.
That being said, Prophet’s Prey acts as a pretty brutal analysis of a community/religion, led not only by extremely skilled director Amy Berg, but also Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air (both excellent books), and Sam Brower, a private investigator who has written an exposé on the FLDS Church; both men who appear simultaneously intrigued and repelled by the FLDS Church. Exploring the corruption of an extremely powerful leader, the film is constructed with talking head interviews from Krakauer and Brower, and also close relatives of Warren Jeffs who have been banished from the FLDS Church and are in a position to report on its shady business practices and its leader’s systematic sexual abuse of children. Not only do we have capable voices leading the story, but we also have Warren Jeffs’ voice providing a sort of educational narration where key FLDS terms are clarified. Jeffs’ voice sounds so creepy, spoken in an intimate, soft whisper which sounds heavily medicated. Keeping in mind the actions of Jeffs, which are elucidated in disgusting detail later in the film, this voiceover becomes extremely disturbing over time; adding another layer to the overall disgust that you might feel by the film’s end. We also see very interesting archival footage of the Church, and some beautiful shots taken of FLDS members in the present day, going about their business. Additionally, music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is so beautiful and atmospheric, providing an unsettling background to the reprehensible acts described on screen.
It is truly interesting watching the ascent of Warren Jeffs to the leader of the FLDS Church, and how he quickly establishes himself as a prophet after his father, the previous leader, passes away in what could be described as suspicious circumstances. A portion of Prophet’s Prey focuses on the business practices of the FLDS Church, wherein forced labour disguised as volunteering for the church is common, and child labour is becoming an emerging concern. However, the corruption of the FLDS Church lies not only in its exploitation of people for labour, and over time the emerging theme of Prophet’s Prey becomes clear – that of the sexual abuse of children, and the relation of this with the Church’s practice of polygamy. Allegations of sexual assault are levelled against Warren Jeffs repeatedly throughout the film, from many members of the community, including those within his own family. We learn of Jeffs’ many, many wives – some of which are as young as 14 or 15, with children of their own. A particularly harrowing and stomach-churning scene of Prophet’s Prey is an audio recording of Jeffs sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl. If the topic of child sexual assault is one that causes you to feel extremely uncomfortable or unwell, then I may suggest watching Prophet’s Prey at home with your pause or fast forward button at the ready, to give yourself a break as needed.
To a certain extent, Prophet’s Prey suffers from its wish to pin all of the FLDS Church’s evils on Warren Jeffs. It’s almost like blaming the entirety of the Nazi Party’s actions on Hitler alone; it’s easy to do because he’s the leader, but it’s not entirely accurate. It’s true that this film makes it very clear that Warren Jeffs is a man who has committed vile and criminal acts in the name of religion, but I would have loved to know more about those around him in the FLDS Church and how these views and practices are perpetrated throughout the community. Warren Jeffs cannot be the only prominent FLDS Church member who marries and sexually abuses underage girls. We know from discussions held within the film that it was not only Jeffs who had underage wives who were either pregnant or had already given birth; it is clear that this is an accepted practice of the religion, which cannot be ‘blamed’ entirely on Jeffs, and is supported by others. Unfortunately, we do not learn as much as I would like about child marriage and sexual assault within the FLDS Church as a systemic issue; instead, it is presented as a Jeffs-specific issue. As a side note, the film also does not explore the blatantly racist and homophobic views of the FLDS Church, choosing instead to focus on the above mentioned specific offenses.
The context of this film, however, is that despite the above offenses, people of the FLDS Church continue to follow Warren Jeffs. A point that Prophet’s Prey makes very clearly is that fear is an effective method of controlling a populace, and that the fear of God is extremely powerful for those within the FLDS Church. The more the community fears Jeffs, the more they depend on him, and the more he is able to control them; and indeed, still controls them from within his prison cell. The film is a very effective portrait of religious influence that is interlinked with evil acts. Prophet’s Prey is a beautifully directed and shot documentary about a truly sickening subject, which is told to the best of its ability by very skilled storytellers. Its Achilles heel lies in its tendency to simplify the issues at hand and isolate them to the leader of the FLDS Church. Ultimately, Prophet’s Prey is truly interesting, sickening, and uncomfortable, but is required viewing for those intrigued by the exposure of religious corruption.
Watch the trailer here.