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How They Did It: Covert Interviews with Scared Teens in Documentary Exposé Kidnapped for Christ

How They Did It: Covert Interviews with Scared Teens in Documentary Exposé Kidnapped for Christ

Documentary

In her documentary Kidnapped for Christ, Kate Logan set out with the innocuous plan to film the lives of American teenagers sent to Escuela Caribe, a “Christian therapeutic boarding school” in the Dominican Republic. What she discovered was a militaristic behavior modification, ex-gay boot camp where teens were emotionally and physically abused. How did the director obtain honest interviews students who were terrified of getting in trouble for saying anything negative about the program?

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The first thing that was very clear to me while we were shooting at the school, was that the students were all paranoid about saying the wrong thing to me that would get them in trouble. They had good reason to be scared – the punishments for speaking negatively about the program were severe, ranging from being put in isolation to getting hit with a paddle.

Simultaneously, maintaining the trust of both the students and the staff was extremely difficult. On the one hand, we had to convince the students that we wouldn’t get them in trouble for being honest with us about abuse they had suffered. On the other, we couldn’t let on to the staff that we were trying to expose abuse occurring at the school or we’d get kicked out.

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One of Logan’s frightened subjects in Kidnapped for Christ

After the first few weeks of filming we had identified our main characters and had, for the most part, convinced them that we wouldn’t rat them out for telling us the truth about their experiences. Once we had won their trust, our challenge was how to film them without the staff knowing and without inadvertently getting them in trouble. The student-to-staff ratio at the school was one-to-one and the students were closely monitored at all times. To make things even harder, by this point in shooting, the staff members were growing suspicious of us as well. We had to find a way to shoot with the students out in the open in a way that no one would notice.

That’s when the wireless boom I carried with me everywhere came in handy. While we were filming a hiking trip that the students went on, my cinematographer, Peter Borrud, got an idea. After we were told for probably the fifth time that day that we couldn’t film any confrontations between staff and students, Peter and I were frustrated and getting desperate for a way to film without interruption. So, as I sat down next to one of our subjects, a girl named Tai, with the wireless boom in my lap, Peter zoomed in and set up a medium shot from across the campsite and hit record. Then, he walked away from the camera. I nudged our subject and whispered, “Can you talk right now,” while motioning with my eyes towards the camera. She immediately understood what was going on and quietly answered the questions that I couldn’t ask with a staff member over my shoulder. The only person to catch on to what we were doing was another student, who walked behind us and whispered “I know what you are doing… and it’s awesome.”

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We employed this “secret interview” technique several more times throughout filming. I would casually walk up to one of the students we were following, Peter would set up at least 10 feet away so as not to appear to be filming anything but a wide shot or b-roll. Then I would do my best to position the boom so it wasn’t in frame, but close enough to the subject that it could still pick up whispers.

This often resulted in the boom’s unintentional cameos that drove our editors nuts, but I like to think that the ever-present boom mic lends to the authenticity of the footage. Either way, we managed to get critical footage of the students’ being honest about their experiences at the school, while not getting them or ourselves in trouble.

We shot most of the film way back in 2006, on the then-popular Panasonic DVX 100. So, zooming and reframing in post was pretty much out of the question with the standard definition footage. Had we shot the film today, we would have had an easier time getting well-framed shots on the fly while the cinematographer maintained his physical distance from me and the subjects, because we’d have the resolution to zoom in post. However, I choose not to bemoan this fact, because in many ways the unrefined nature of the footage proves it’s authenticity and lends to the overall feeling of paranoia that we wanted the audience to grasp.

Kidnapped for Christ premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2014.

Kidnapped for Christ premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2014, before playing numerous other festivals

During the first scene shot secretly, you can see both myself and Tai looking around nervously as we talked. In this case, having the shot be perfect was secondary to the actual content of the scene. The audience doesn’t care if the boom mic is in the shot, or if the framing isn’t quite perfect, when they are focusing on the look of fear in Tai’s eyes as she revealed her true feelings about the program. MM

Gravitas Ventures released Kidnapped for Christ on iTunes and VOD on November 4, 2014.

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