By Madelyn Ritrosky
Follow the prophet. Or should we read that as ‘follow the profit?’ This play on words points straight to the disturbing misogyny of sexual selfishness and capitalist greed pillars of a patriarchal culture at the heart of the polygamist cult in Follow the Prophet.
The independent film had its world premiere at the 2009 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Promoting the film there were writer and lead actor Robert Chimento (Milk), director Drew Ann Rosenberg (Sex and a Girl), producer-actress Joan Sweeny (For Which He Stands), and lead actress Annie Burgstede (Days of Our Lives).
Big Love this ain’t thank goodness. HBO’s comedy series Big Love, about a man with three wives, is not funny in the least because its premise is utterly offensive. Polygamy, an illegal practice, is about the subordination of women to men. To think that this mainstream “comedy” has come about in supposedly enlightened 21st-century America is rather disturbing. Follow the Prophet is the dark underbelly of Big Love the reality Big Love ignores.
Women have had to struggle for centuries in this country to attain rights that were never theirs, despite America’s founding on “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Early in the 19th century, women essentially had no rights. They were considered, legally and otherwise, the property of men, first fathers and then husbands. Wives were “covered over” by their husbands, known legally as coverture. Thus married women had no legal standing at all the law did not recognize them as individual human beings.
Little by little, hard-won rights were gained, like married women’s property rights and divorce rights. It wasn’t until 1920, a full 72 years after the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, that American women could finally vote equally alongside men. It wasn’t until 1965, a whopping 92 years after the 1873 Comstock law deemed contraception obscene, that the Supreme Court overturned Connecticut’s ban on the use of birth control.
As for today, consider the continuing inequality in wages or in sexual codes and morality. I could go on. Consider the continuing existence of polygamy, which brings gender inequities into sharp focus…
Drew Rosenberg situates Follow the Prophet this way: “Quite simply, this film deals with the persecution of women and children through religious brainwashing. When you look at the structure of these polygamous sects, you can't miss the fact that women are treated as subordinates at best. In extreme cases, like in the fundamentalist sects, they are nothing more than chattel.” The property of men.
The struggle continues.
There are two lines in the two opening scenes of Follow the Prophet that portend the movie that will unfold. One pointedly reveals the predatory sexism that structures this polygamist community. We see a number of teenage girls, dressed in conservatively modest feminine attire, sitting in neat rows in church pews. They repeat the words that their adult male instructor is drilling into them: “We give ourselves freely to our men, which is the only way to get to God.” When he later drops a pack of cigarettes, the hypocrisy is nailed home.
Robert Chimento hoped those words would outrage the audience and they do. I was ready to throw up right there. From audience reaction, I wasn’t the only one to recoil from such blatant misogyny. But it gets even worse, for we soon learn that “our men” can include their own fathers. The viewer, of course, hopes that in the end justice will be served.
The other line that sets up the film comes in a dream sequence that introduces Chimento’s character, Jude. A young woman a soldier is writing a letter to her father as she sits in a military truck. Her voice-over narration reveals his shortcomings as a parent and her disillusionment from her tour of duty in Iraq. She says/writes, “Now I see what the world can become when good men do nothing.”
But Jude never had a chance to respond to that letter, to heal his relationship with his daughter. She became a casualty of the war. So his nightmare does not end when he wakes up, momentarily disoriented but living a life seemingly without purpose.
The story has been set in motion. The film’s message will play out. This man will do something he will act to help the women and children caught in that polygamist web, and in the process he will find his own redemption. As Chimento explained, Jude is “a father who didn’t do his duty” but gets “the redemption he was looking for when he goes against the bad father.”
In other words, there is injustice in the world, in our midst, and awareness and action can make a difference and lead to change. There is hope.
Chimento confirmed that Follow the Prophet was indeed inspired by recent horrific revelations of thriving polygamist cults in America, where women and children are victimized by older male leaders. Young men are victimized, too, in that they are indoctrinated into seeing the world in such ugly ways. And as the film suggests, children can be sexually abused regardless of gender.
Patriarchy at its worst is ingrained into these people, Joan Sweeny and Chimento emphasized, from the day they are born. Rosenberg observed, “There are hundreds of thousands not hundreds involved. They are shut out from the outside world and taught by their leaders.” Sweeny added, “No religious hierarchy has the right to strip people of their rights.”
The filmmakers hope that Follow the Prophet will spread awareness of this continuing social problem. As Sweeny explained, awareness of social injustice is always a first step toward social change. “Awareness can eventually lead to action,” she said.
The action that these people took was certainly significant they researched and made this feature film. Film festivals are the first line of publicity, and their premiere at SBIFF was gratifying: “We’ve gotten a tremendous response here in Santa Barbara,” Chimento said. They not only hope to generate word of mouth and favorable press coverage, but interest on the part of theatrical distributors.
With this article here, through my actions as a writer, hopefully I can do my part by raising awareness of this film and these issues. My longstanding concern about women’s rights and the representation of gender led me to this film. And I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, meeting these filmmakers was a high point of the festival.
Although Follow the Prophet is a work of fiction, Robert Chimento explained how his screenplay was grounded in reality and inspired by his personal experiences while visiting Utah. He was there because of an unrelated lawsuit, but noticed polygamy’s presence through another case being heard in the same court and through a local news story. “I was totally outraged,” he said.
Yet the film really “only scratched the surface,” he continued. He pointed to documentaries like Banking on Heaven (note the metaphors again) and Inside Polygamy, as well as books like Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints, as offering more detailed and disturbing examinations of the problem. In fact, some of the victimization is so disturbing that Chimento refused to give examples.
While Chimento had “little difficulty finding information,” Joan Sweeny pointed out that several documentaries and books came out as they finished shooting. So Chimento was clearly forward-thinking in writing a screenplay that scrutinizes the problem of polygamy.
In addition, tying this social problem to the war in Iraq and veterans’ issues was a way to bring together more than one concern in contemporary American society. And for Chimento, the story’s “father-daughter relationship seemed to fit right in” with those concerns.
When Joan Sweeny read the script, she was moved. Red Road Productions, in which she and Robert Chimento are partners, already had financing to produce a film. But knowing there were real-life counterparts to the script’s wealthy and connected polygamist men made Sweeny hesitate. She admitted, “I was scared to do it.” But they felt too strongly to not proceed. They would act in both senses of that word.
When Drew Rosenberg read the script, she was attracted to it because she “wanted to do something with important social issues.” She thought it was important that a woman direct this film: “As a woman, these issues are particularly provocative, because we are fighting for our rights, as it were. Secondly, because of the sensitive issues in the film dealing with children a child raped by her father, little kids talking about this subject I think it was easier for the kids acting in the film to speak to a woman rather than a man. Women were not the perpetrators of these crimes.”
Rosenberg added that when she reads about Arab cultures or polygamist groups in the U.S., she has to pause. “I am incredibly lucky to have the freedoms that I do have,” she said. “But I should never, ever take them for granted. That fuels my passion and that, I think, is the perspective that only a woman can give to this film.”
Annie Burgstede, who is 25 but plays the part of 15-year-old Avery, recently finished a one-year stint on Days of Our Lives. But during the Follow the Prophet shoot, she had to travel to Portland, Oregon, while still taping soap episodes in Los Angeles. It was worth it. “I was excited to get a script with a strong young woman’s role,” she said. “The film was serving a purpose, so I was willing to go there. It wasn’t scary.”
Serving a purpose indeed. Chimento revealed that while he certainly hopes to make money from this film, he plans to donate some of its earnings to The Hope Organization in St. George, Utah, which helps victims and runaways from polygamous communities like the one depicted in the movie. Their website can be found at http://www.childbrides.org/.
In a postscript, the film notes Senator Harry Reid’s (D-Nevada) July 2008 call for hearings into the detestable, unlawful practices and sad consequences of polygamy in the U.S. But Chimento wondered, “Will those hearings go anywhere?” Right now, only time will tell.
And time will tell how Follow the Prophet fares as a film. It has just begun its journey of awareness...
Follow the Prophet opens theatrically on April 30, 2010 at Angelika Houston Film Center with a special benefit for the Texas Center for the Missing. In May 2010, the film debuts in North America on Video on Demand and for download via Gravitas Ventures, through Warner Brothers Digital Distribution.
Photos courtesy of Murray Weissman & Associates
Top: Prophet Poster
First: Robert Chimento as Jude (left) and Annie Burgstede as Avery
2nd: Annie Burgstede as Avery
3rd: Diane Venora as Red (left) and Annie Burgstede as Avery