I have a weekly Q&A show where I answer questions about Scientology and talk about issues involving critical thinking, a subject I’ve been quite passionate about since I left Scientology three years ago.  Recently, someone asked me about a cult intervention movie called Holy Smoke! and what I thought about the methods displayed in it. Were these ethical or moral?

I had not seen the 1999 movie written by Jane Campion and her sister, Anna (who apparently was part of a Hindu cult similar to the one portrayed in the film and has sympathies towards these groups). I’ve never seen any other Jane Campion film (such as The Piano or In the Cut) but if this is representative of her work as a filmmaker, I doubt that I ever will bother to see anything else she has or will produce.

Kate Winslet plays Ruth Barron, a woman who comes from a very dysfunctional family and ends up in India where she joins a guru’s love-nest cult group.  Her mother freaks out over this when Ruth’s traveling companion comes back to Australia and tells her that Ruth has joined a cult and is marrying an Indian guru.

The fact that Holy Smoke! takes place in Australia is entirely unnecessary to the story but I’d like to comment that the Australians are especially ill-treated by the screenplay and direction. Almost one-for-one they are portrayed as narcissistic morons and uncaring idiots who can barely be bothered to lift a finger for anything that doesn’t give them a laugh, get them drunk or distract them from their boring lives. The only reason I could think of as to why the family is portrayed this way would be to explain why Ruth would be so desirous to get away from them and their degraded western ways. Ruth’s mother is the only exception, a whipping post of a woman who lives in a family of cretins and has sacrificed her own happiness for a meager bit of security and the love of her daughter.

Harvey Keitel plays P.J. Waters, positioned as “the best cult exiter in the US.” He and his black cowboy boots and macho attitude appear on the scene at the mother’s request, as she is desperate to get her daughter safely home. Waters briefs the family on his methods and this is the first point where things start to go off the rails. His whole approach involves isolating Ruth and then creating a traumatic episode so she will “wake up.” He says it’s going to take days and that he will be alone with her – no family members present. At this point, I had sirens going off in my head because every single thing he said was totally backwards and wrong-headed.

Ruth’s mother manages to convince Ruth to come back from India with a bogus story about her father dying at a remote location in Australia. Ruth comes back and immediately finds out she’s been deceived since her father is standing out in the open playing golf. He proceeds to talk down to her and treat her like utter crap and then the rest of the family moves in and prevents her from leaving, saying she has to stay with PJ so he can “break her” (as though she’s an animal).

Ruth eventually agrees and things go from bad to just insane. PJ proceeds with his deprogramming effort by assuming some fake authoritarian attitude, belittles everything about her experience in India, challenges her beliefs and feelings at every turn and basically acts like a pompous ass. The few moments where he says something intelligent and manages to make her think, he then ruins it with his over-active male ego or some insulting slight which brings back all of her defensiveness. He takes her property and makes it abundantly clear to her that she is under his control and really just positions himself as an even worse example of a cult leader than her Indian guru. After a couple of days of this, Ruth appears to break and then seduces him (not a difficult task since PJ has no moral compass when it comes to sex, having already succumbed to Ruth’s sister-in-law when she came on to him).

From that point on, the movie concentrates on a sort of role-reversal where Ruth takes on the dominant role and makes PJ conform to her will, finally getting him to wear lipstick and a dress and eventually he gets the crap righteously beat out of him by her family.

Granted that the real point of this movie is not how to do a cult intervention, it uses this device to tell its story of domination and role reversals and sexual power. While many may not be watching this film for accuracy in terms of how people are exited from cults, its stereotypes and caricatures only serve to reinforce cultural beliefs that people who help intervene in destructive cults are somehow worse than the destructive cult leaders and are only in it for their own financial and personal aggrandizement. This doesn’t serve to help anyone in the real world trapped in a destructive cult nor those who work countless unpaid hours to help them.

From the point of view of a cult survivor and someone who now works to get people out of destructive cults, I found this movie extremely distasteful.  In fact, I don’t use this word often as I think it is hopelessly overused in the modern world, but Holy Smoke! was offensive. It could almost be re-titled “Everything You Should Never Ever Do at Any Time During a Cult Intervention.”

Unfortunately, this kind of kidnapping and coercive approach to cult intervention is what is portrayed in the media over and over again despite the fact that it has almost nothing to do with reality and the film makers know it. A 2004 article by Joe Szimhart called “Persistence of ‘Deprogramming’ Stereotypes in Film” details the problem at length. Newspaper editors, TV news show journalists and film producers are well aware that since the mid-1980s, coercive techniques have not been in broad or general use and are in fact heavily frowned upon by any professionals in the cult intervention field. The vast majority of people in destructive cults don’t even need intervention as they usually wake up and escape on their own. For those whose families are truly concerned and who need help in realizing that they are involved in something really destructive to their well-being, professionals use non-coercive techniques such as rational conversation, familial compassion and care and lots of education. The media don’t want to show non-coercive cult interventions because they aren’t sexy or dramatic and have so little violence or conflict in them. Who wants to sit and watch people having rational discourse?

No matter what title you may have or give yourself – cult interventionist, exiter, counselor, therapist, etc. – it is a well-known and well-established fact that you are not going to “break” someone out of a cult situation. A person who is trapped in a destructive cult is already broken. The only way out is to show them the door and let them decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives, using love, compassion, kindness and education to hopefully break through the undue influence and mental coercion which has already been used on them by the cult leader and his followers. Anything else only serves to put the person more under the cult leader’s influence as it plays into the stereotypes cult leaders use to entrap their followers.

While this movie is 17 years old and not likely to be widely viewed anymore, it is unfortunately an all-too-typical example of how the media wishes cult intervention work is done and that is a real disservice to the whole world. I wish that Jane and Anna Campion had considered that when they made this nonsense.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Chris’ book? Do you have a movie you’d like to see us review? We’d love to hear from you!