One of the first scenes you see in the film Follow the Prophet is a group of teenaged girls sitting in a church. A man stands in front of them, intoning, "What must you do to reach the highest level of heaven?" The girls answer by rote: "Be obedient to a good and faithful man."
Those are the teachings of the polygamous sect to which the girls belong. Little do they know that many of the supposedly good men around them are, in fact, pedophiles.
Follow the Prophet, which won a Remi award at WorldFest Houston International Film Festival 2010, is the story of one young girl in the sect who discovers that at age 15 she's about to be forced to marry an older man. With the help of a passing stranger, she escapes only to find out that an even younger girl is now going to take her place. Does she risk returning to her home to save the other girl or does she consider herself lucky and move on?
Actor Annie Burgstede plays the young girl, Avery. David Conrad (co-star of Ghostwhisperer) is Avery's sexually abusive father. Robert Chimento, who wrote the screenplay, is Army Colonel Jude Marks, the man who helps her escape. And Diane Venora is the Sheriff who helps the two return to the sect's compound to save the younger girl (you didn't really think Avery was just going to turn her back on the situation, did you?).
Producer Joan Sweeny and Chimento spoke with Hair Balls recently, discussing what they hope audiences take away with them.
Chimento says he thinks audiences will be shocked when they see the polygamists' situation, including widespread sexual abuse of children, that has been going on in the United States, including Texas.
"When I found out what was going on ... in the name of God, I was outraged. I just had to write it. We're talking about a group of people who operate inside the United States and they're compared to the, by the Hope Organization for example, to the American Taliban. [In the film], we have a [military] officer who comes in and uncovers the same thing in America that he was fighting against in Afghanistan."
Tackling such a large, extreme subject was a bit daunting for Chimento. The trick was to be as realistic as possible, but still have characters what would draw audiences in to the story. It was easy to make Avery and the other girls sympathetic, but keeping the men who abused them from appearing to be little more than monsters took more finesse.
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"It's not a documentary; it's an edge-of-your-seat thriller," he says. "When I did my research I found stories about these cults that ... that I still won't repeat. I decided to stick to one example, one situation, and follow that all the way through."
"You want people to be able to see the film and gain awareness, without turning them off," adds Sweeny. "It's a very fine line. You've got this system where the men in the system think they can do whatever they want. For me, the compelling aspect of this is [that sex offense] is sex offense, no matter if you're doing it under the umbrella of religion or some other hierarchy.
"We always try to put you in the visceral aspect of a drama so that you feel something," she continues. "It's very important when you go see a film that you feel something about the subject matter. I know that Robert as a writer and as an actor felt it was important to put [the audience] in the shoes of the characters."
Today's Follow the Prophet opening night screening is a benefit for the Texas Center for the Missing. Both Joan Sweeny and Robert Chimento, along with actor David Conrad, will attend the screening and participate in a Q&A session afterwards. 7:15 p.m. Angelika Film Center, 510 Texas. For information, call 713-599-0235 or visit www.thetexascenter.org. $50.