In this candid interview, The Vow director Jehane Noujaim talks to Awards Daily about her relationship with NXIVM and how she folded innovative storytelling into what would become one of the most talked about true-crime series of 2020.
If you can’t get enough of HBO’s The Vow, the documentary series about Keith Raniere and the NXIVM cult that branded women, then you’ll want to check out this candid email conversation with series co-director Jehane Noujaim, who talks about her experience in the cult, how they combined all of the footage together, and why they chose to reveal key information in the penultimate episode, “The Wound.”
Awards Daily: What made you become interested in this true crime story?
Jehane Noujaim: My journey with The Vow and with NXIVM has been 10 years in the making—long before it became a true crime story for the world!
In 2006, I won the TED prize. It was an incredible opportunity to harness the resources from the TED network and create a special project focused on global impact. The project we were creating was called Pangea Day.
In 2007, I flew to Necker Island—Richard Branson’s island—to speak about Pangea Day, and there I met Sarah Bronfman who told me all about NXIVM, its ethical mission and the coursework and self-improvement that it offered. I was intrigued by what she had to say. I also thought programs like Toni Robbins and Landmark were fascinating in that these large groups would come together for a week and participants would speak about life-changing realizations. Two years later, I met Mark Vicente at the Cannes Film Festival, who also told me that this program had changed his life. So I decided to try out the flagship introductory course at NXIVM, which was called “Executive Success Program” or ESP. I loved the people I met because they all seemed to be motivated by the idealistic belief that they could change themselves and the world. I tried to make a film about the group at that time, and Mark Vicente, himself a great filmmaker, encouraged me to do so. However, I wasn’t able to get the access I needed to make the film I wanted, and I never finished the class. Instead, I got married, had three kids, made a film about the Egyptian Revolution and moved to LA.
Living in Venice, Mark Vicente told me I could finish the ESP course, and I decided to do so. It was April 2017. Upon finishing the class, Mark confided that there were highly problematic things happening within NXIVM that he was being told about, but because this was a group highly concerned with living an ethical life, this seemed very strange to me. It didn’t match, and I was curious to understand how this could possibly be. It wasn’t until we really started filming and went on the journey, that we started to formulate a story around it.
Many of the people I filmed, I had met 10 years earlier. Most everyone was going through a process, where everything that they understood was turned upside down. We were making the film as people were questioning these larger, layered situations and as people were deciding to stay or to leave and experiencing a crisis of faith. I think the most difficult process was building trust at a time when these people were unsure about trusting themselves, let alone someone else.
There was a battle of narratives and a collective questioning of self, and I knew it would be extremely valuable to have a camera there recording. However it wasn’t until more information started to come out about what was happening that it started to become more of a film. We began filming an unfolding story, and we did not know where it would take us.
AD: Keith recorded EVERYTHING apparently. Did you feel like you stumbled onto gold as filmmakers?
JN: The collective passion for this project has certainly been invaluable. Everyone in NXIVM was encouraged to film and record because people felt they should capture the learning experience they were going through. The individuals who gave us footage trusted that we would tell this story with empathy and compassion.
Having access to this footage helped us gain deeper insight into this story, but showing the footage in the most objective and empathetic light was an enormous challenge and responsibility. We incorporated this footage into our vérité filming, where we embedded with the film subjects over many years to follow their journeys as they began to question everything that they thought they had been standing for.
AD: You acquired a lot of footage, including introspective shots of Allison Mack—did you try to adapt your filming style to the footage you have to make it so seamless?
KN: We used the fly-on-the-wall style of filming that I learned from legendary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, who were my mentors. Just being with your characters as they are going through something where the stakes are very high. As a filmmaker, I try to bear witness without judgment to all sides of the story. I believe it’s the job of the filmmaker to create the space for debate and to try to allow for different sides to be understood.
The majority of our footage we recorded ourselves with the film subjects, and then we carefully married the acquired footage to this vérité style, selecting shots that had a similar vérité impulse, in order to create a seamless effect.
In every documentary film, access is based on trust, which is very much a process of talking with people and having people feel comfortable with how you are approaching the topic. I think there’s so much judgment around these issues—is this a cult, is this not a cult? Have there been crimes committed?
I think the feeling that the subjects had about myself and the production team was that we were bearing witness without judgment. Because of that natural transition of honest peers to a team that was spearheading the documentary process, we were able to be trusted and given access.
AD: I was completely addicted to this series, more so than any other show in 2020. And the episode that I thought was a game-changer was “The Wound.” A lot is revealed in this penultimate episode, including information about SOP and Keith’s core ideology which centers around misogyny. Did you have a process for how you wanted to pull back the layers of this story? And why did you choose to make this particular episode such a gut punch?
JN: Thank you! I’m glad to hear that. This is a series that bears witness to a group of people who believed that they were changing themselves and, in so doing, the world itself. We wanted to prioritize the humanity of it all. We wanted to look behind the decisions that were made, and actually look at the human beings behind these salacious headlines, as well as the very real, internal and enduring questions that draw people to these types of groups: How do we be good people? How do we get out of our own way? What’s our purpose in life?
We wanted to take a story that has been sensationalized across the headlines, and to put nuance and a human face to it. We wanted to shed light on the complexity of the organization, and what attracted people to it. It’s important that we try to understand people and what motivates them. I think the most difficult part has been watching the pain of people on all sides of this saga who believed in goodness, who dared to dream, dared to think they could change their lives, only to find themselves associated with what has been relegated to a sex cult rather than this much more complex story.
Importantly, the series goes beyond Keith. It examines specific people who were high achievers, who were attracted to this organization, and why they dedicated themselves to this organization. What they cared about, what their mission was and then how they extracted themselves from the organization when there were things they saw that they didn’t like. NXIVM was a large organization with chapters in many countries.
In the structuring of the series, we wanted to pull back the layers of the story in the same way that indoctrination is a layered process. In the penultimate episode, “The Wound,” Keith reveals a core ideology and misogyny that would certainly not be palatable to participants of the program if they heard these ideas in introductory courses. There is a temptation in making a series to get to the most salacious material as quickly as possible in the first episodes, in order to attract viewers. For example, there was a Source or acting class that had students practicing empathizing with the worst of humanity—in this case rapists. Portraying Raniere as if he were addressing auditoriums with these speeches in the very first classes or episodes only hurts the victims because it implies everyone was complicit. It condemns anyone who ever walked through NXIVM’s doors: surely everyone knew, why did no one say or do anything about it? But as much as it is good for TV ratings to use this kind of shock value early on, it is inaccurate. The truth is that material was only presented to a small fraction of the organization that had been impeccably groomed by Raniere for years. We were incredibly lucky to work with executives that understood the importance of this series unfolding the way that an indoctrination would—like a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. This is why it is not until the penultimate episode, “The Wound,” that we share the most gut-wrenching concepts and where the inner circle were being led. It was crucial for the audience to experience the slow boil, the line-bending and boundary-pushing that happens over a number of years (or in the case of the series a number of episodes) in order for this important process of internal manipulation to be understood authentically.
AD: In “The Wound,” you capture some really intense moments, like when Nippy and Mark are talking on Santa Monica Pier and when Mark makes his “You don’t knowingly join a cult” speech. Were you there during these moments? If so, what was that like?
JN: When following an unfolding story, the hope is to be there as things are happening. It makes for much more intense filmmaking, but the hope is that if you are there as your subjects are discovering and understanding for the first time, you allow an audience to experience first-hand, in a way that can never be felt through an interview filmed months or years after the fact. Our hope is that the viewer will feel like they are there living the experience alongside the people that we are following. These moments are incredibly delicate to film, because people are letting you observe their most vulnerable moments when they don’t know what is going to happen next. It is a true gift and a real leap of faith for people like Mark and others to give of themselves like that. I know it is not easy.
Our commitment to the subjects is for one of the team to be there at all moments and if they need to tell us to leave or to turn the camera off, we of course must give them their space. And why would someone allow for a camera to be there? Because the subjects believed that if others could actually see them processing the experience, it would be a more authentic learning experience. Imagine how difficult making that decision is—when you have just been through a process of several years of sacrificing yourself for the goals of a larger group—in a way they are doing the same thing, but for the sake of an audience. We worked with an incredible team of filmmakers, and it was Sam Price-Waldman, one of our wonderful DPs, alongside Claire Read our producer who filmed both the Santa Monica Pier scene as well as the scene where Mark says that no one would ever knowingly join a cult.
AD: I feel like one of the underlying things people were searching for with NXIVM was friendship. How much do you think these connections/friendships are also what kept these people in the group?
JN: NXIVM provided a sense of community to many people, which is something we all are looking for, and that we find in different places. People in the group formed close friendships and strong connections, with the shared goal of becoming the best version of themselves and accomplishing their goals. In groups like DOS in particular, I think women felt like it would be a sisterhood.
We wanted to show what people in high-control groups can show us about the depth of human relationships. They have such deep relationships with each other, there is such depth of love and pain. This is, at its core, a betrayal story. And to understand the betrayal, you have to understand the love they felt for each other.
AD: I’m sure you’ve heard people say that oh, I’d never fall for this. But how much do you think cult behavior is already ingrained in society?
JN: I will say I was at the top of my game when I took the curriculum. I had some big questions in my life, but I saw the curriculum as a way of reevaluating my decision-making process. Everybody in the world has big questions about their life. I met people there who were partners in law firms, successful executives, etc. Successful or not, everyone at the end of the day has the same basic life questions: What’s my purpose? Am I a good partner, friend, daughter? Am I doing good in the world? That’s a range of questions all people ask of themselves – or you hope people ask of themselves.
Ultimately, people seek belonging and acceptance and approval from others, and this manifests in many different ways in society. As humans, we all have vulnerabilities, and those can be exploited, perhaps more easily than we might like to think. We hoped to shed light on how and the story of this group is a mirror to our society. Just look at our political leaders in recent years—highly charismatic individuals with simple answers to complex questions are very attractive to our society.
Watch The Vow on HBOMax.