“In a lot of ways, I would describe it as a cult,” documentary filmmaker Kate Logan (pictured) tells Queerty. “Nobody questions the leadership. You follow authority. It’s very isolated. A lot of bad things happen.”
In 2006, she traveled from her home in Los Angeles to Escuela Caribe in the Dominican Republic. She was there as a Christian filmmaker with the intention of documenting what she believed was a positive program for troubled youth. She lived on campus for six weeks, filming the school’s daily operations, interviewing staff, and getting to know students. But it didn’t take long for her to realize that things were not as they seemed. Logan witnessed students being verbally abused by employees, forced to perform repetitive chores and hard labor, and locked in solitary confinement for hours, sometimes days, at a time.
In an exclusive interview, Logan spoke to Queerty about her disturbing experiences inside what she describes as a “cult-like” Christian reform school, the young man who was sent there for being gay, and how making this Kidnapped For Christ changed her views on both homosexuality and Christianity.
I had been in the Dominican Republic previously as a missionary, and I met some staff members who worked there. The way they described it was: This is a therapeutic program for kids who are either going to be on the streets, in jail, or dead. And I kind of thought it was a place for kids who had gone down the wrong path that could come and learn about another culture and get away from the bad influences or situations back home.
But you soon learned this wasn’t the case.
Within the first couple of days, I saw some things that just didn’t sit right. I saw a lot of students doing very pointless, repetitive labor. One of the first days I was there I saw a girl who was just scrubbing outdoor concrete steps all day. I saw a staff member go up to her and say: “You’re not allowed to rest your knees on the steps.” She basically had to hold what is essentially a stress position for hours and hours. And right off that bad that just didn’t strike me as appropriate or therapeutic. It became pretty clear that this was a much darker story than I had anticipated.
You also saw students being subjected to all kinds of painful punishments, including one student with a prosthetic leg being forced to run around a muddy track field. Did you ever approach the staff about any of this?
If I had, they would have immediately kicked me off campus. It was clear from the get-go that questioning what they were doing would not be well received. We had to play everything very close to the chest. Once I left I did speak to the U.S. Consulate and I voiced my concerns, but to my knowledge they didn’t do anything about it.
I’d imagine getting students to open up to you must have been difficult given the extreme supervision.
That was one of the biggest challenges, more so than keeping in the good graces of the staff. Probably 80% of the interviews were total bullshit. A lot of them were just saying the company lines. Because students could get in trouble for saying bad things about the school, and they didn’t know if they could trust us.
But two students — David and Tai — spoke pretty openly with you.
We were very lucky that David and Tai opened up to us the way that they did, and were willing to say negative things about the program that could have gotten them in a lot of trouble. David, in particular, was so new. He had only been there for about six weeks when we got there, and he was just so desperate to have anyone that he could talk to.
And one of the things he told you was that he’d been sent there because he was gay.
When he came out as gay, his parents couldn’t deal with the fact that he wasn’t going to try not to be gay, and that he wasn’t going to go the therapy to be “fixed.” So they took this extreme measure. But he wasn’t a bad, rebellious kid. He had a 4.2 GPA. He was on track and in the IB program. He’s the last kid you would imagine getting sent away to a reform school.
As a Christian Evangelist at the time, what were your opinions of gay people?
Going into this, honestly, I thought that being gay was a sin. But in getting to know David and advocating for him and in exposing this Christian school, one day I realized that I kind of never really believed [being gay] was sinful all along. I never prayed for David to not be gay. If anything, had he come and said, “I accepted Jesus and I’m not gay anymore,” I would have said, “No! They got to you. Just be who you are.”
So he was the catalyst for your change of heart.
I think it was one of those cases that I’m sure a lot of other people have experienced. Until you’re really close to someone who is LGBT, it’s easy to hold this homophobic view. But once you get to know someone, it’s so apparent that there’s nothing wrong with it, and it’s part of who they are. And that’s really what changed my view. He played a big role in that.
After you finished filming, you actually tried to help David escape the school, but you were unsuccessful.
It was very frustrating when we left the Dominican Republic without him because we knew that he had the right to leave.
Because by then he was 18.
Yes. We knew there was no reason why he couldn’t leave. The only reason we couldn’t get him is because the U.S. Embassy wouldn’t compel Escula Caribe to release him.
The U.S. Embassy just didn’t care enough about his rights as a citizen to tell the school that legally they have to produce this 18 year who was in distress and wanted to leave. I knew the school would put up resistance, but I expected our embassy to care that a U.S. citizen was being unlawfully held. What are they there for, if not for these situations?
And when the school learned about what you were doing, they weren’t happy.
They told me: “You had an agenda from day one!” and “You’re serving Satan!” It was absurd. They never filed anything, but both the school and David’s parents threatened to sue if I didn’t stop the film and turn over all the footage. I kind of had to lay low on it for a few years until that blew over.
After all this, do you still identify as Christian?
I don’t identify as Christian. I would probably put myself in the Agnostic category now. Not entirely because of everything that had to do with the film. There were other factors. But I don’t identify myself as Christian.
Watch the trailer for Kidnapped For Christ below. And don’t miss the film on Showtime on July 10.