Monday, September 15, 2008

Beyond Our Ken

Beyond Our Ken (Luke Walker and Melissa Maclean, Australia, 2007)
Cult - an evocative word, one that perhaps is more closely associated with popular culture, like “that film has a cult following". In the 70s, Western societies were inundated with cults and various groups. There was then a sense of a new wave of social change and people - youth in particular - were keen to reject the ways of their parents and adopt a new paradigm, paradigms offered by groups like Rajneesh, Transcendental Meditation (TM), Hare Krishna, Children of God, Scientologists and others. While many of these groups have dispersed or disappeared, some have adapted and live on.

Beyond Our Ken is an examination of one of these groups, Kenja. Incorporated in 1982 and founded by Ken Dyers and Jan Hamilton, whose first names are joined in the group's name, Kenja projects itself as a self-empowerment training organisation but has been widely criticised as a secretive cult, with allegations of sexual assault. Directed by Luke Walker and Melissa Maclean, access was given within the organisation up to the highest level.

I like the way the documentary is structured. Unlike the recent spate of entertaining and often unashamedly one-sided documentaries, in a more traditional manner, this film examines its subject by interviewing current and former members, parents of members, psychologists and others with an interest in such groups. Some of the most insightful glimpses into the group comes from the crew's access to the leaders themselves. Dyers and Hamilton appear to bask in the attention the documentary affords them.

The film's by-line, “You wouldn't know a cult, even if you were in one”, is quite poignant. As is pointed out, most cults attract members of above average intelligence, often with professional occupations. Those who are somehow restless and dis-satisfied, who have money to pay for “energy conversions” and other sessions, these people are primed as they are shopping for something.

What I consider important about the film is that - while it deals with a specific group - it reveals tactics and qualities that are common to most. By revealling how this group operates, one can see a common thread through many. Such groups are still alive and well in the form of Hare Krishna, Exclusive Brethren and Scientology. One could argue that even the Roman Catholic Church is a type of cult (with it's ascribing of divine powers to the Pope, and the followers' devotion to him). I tend to agree, though that's an aside that I don't wish to pursue here.

I'll state here that there's no doubt in my mind that Kenja is a cult. This is because of the group's focus on its leaders, who appear to enjoy a status akin to a high priest and priestess, a divine couple whose every needs are supplied by compliant members. Most revealling is the groups use of the leaders' names in the group's name. How self-promoting and self-absorbed is that? A genuinely spiritual organisation would name itself on that which it is promoting. But then, Kenja appears to be all about Ken and Jan.

Having taken an interest in alternative religions and teachings in the 1970s and 1980s, I recognised many of the teachings and techniques of Kenja. They appear to be distilled from a variety of sources, with teachings similar to Hare Krishna and New Age spirituality (including Louise Hay's “inner child” concepts), the use of pseudo-psychology with the more rigorous and aggressive business acumen of groups like TM and the Scientologists.

Like any self-respecting cult, Kenja has devised a fairly routine set of mantras or standard responses to claims it is a cult. “Isn't football a cult?” asks Ken indignantly? All these groups have such responses, which I find tired and self-serving. You can never get a straight answer, and the answers are always embellished, denied or avoided. The straightest answers come from those who were once on the inside and now, for various reasons, find themselves outside the group. The group's deflection of these people as a kind of jilted lover doesn't wash.

The group's lecturers/preachers often use catch-words and phrases that are clearly designed to sound meaningful and attractive, though it's never quite clear what they actually mean. “Energy conversions”, “energy”, “free personal consultations”, “attached entities”, “wonderful technology” are some of the words that caught my attention, reminding me of Scientology. And like that group (and virtually every other cult), the adherents have justified why one should break free from existing friends and family, unless they support the group.

As one former member points out, group members don't just hang out with each other like normal people. There is a kind of camaraderie, but if you leave Kenja, all your friendships with the group are over. There is a constant implant of phobias - if you leave, something terrible will happen (such as “I will be lost”, “I'll go mad”, “I'll have no friends”). These are all common traits of cults.

For those who are not familiar with the history of Kenja, I won't spoil it with the ending. Needless to say, it's dramatic and unexpected. I found Beyond Our Ken compelling and highly recommend seeing it on the big screen while you can. It is screening exclusively at Cinema Nova until Wednesday 24 September, and is being released by Hopscotch Entertainment on DVD on 18 September.

Link: Kenja in the news recently (Warning: this article contains spoilers)
Other reviews: Stale Popcorn / Toronto Screen Shots

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