Think You Can Spot A Cultist? Documentarian Mia Donovan Explains Why You Can’t

Senior Contributor
03.28.18

Ubisoft

In Far Cry 5, the game series, which has previously seen its anti-heroes fight off drug dealers in tropical islands and bitter despots in a Himalayan country, goes to America, specifically the fictional Hope County, MT, where you play a deputy with the Hope County Sheriff’s Department who starts work right when the leader of Eden’s Gate pulls a county-wide coup. What’s most unnerving about the game is that its four main villains truly think they’re the good guys, cutting together bright cheerful infomercials and lovingly explaining the importance of trusting their “father” even as they torture and kill.

The game, of course, takes liberties with reality. But the Far Cry team worked closely with cult experts to capture some essential truths about how cults indoctrinate and control people, including documentarian Mia Donovan. Donovan’s documentary Deprogrammed follows the story of her stepbrother, who her stepfather believed was in a cult and subjected to “deprogramming,” the controversial “reverse brainwashing” technique to free him from his love of heavy metal and the Satanic Bible.

In the process, Donovan learned a lot about cults, how they work, and, most importantly, that what we think of as a cult is very different from the reality she confronted. Donovan spoke with us about her work, the game, and how none of us can spot a cultist. Or, for that matter, realize we’re in a cult until it’s too late.

UPROXX: What was your first reaction when the Far Cry team approached you?

Mia Donovan: I was open-minded, and when I met with Dan [Hay, creative director], I was so impressed with how interested he was in the psychology of how cults operate. This is really early on, all he knew was that he was interested in cults and Montana. He wasn’t sure it was something he could explore. I just didn’t know anything about video games, and I was impressed with how they approached the topic. I would go in every six weeks or so with the writing team and show them some material and they all really dove in.

It seems like there’s a lot of misconception around cults.

There’s a lot. The one bias that I had was that I assumed that people were more vulnerable because they were somehow isolated or going through a hard time. Which is true to some degree, but for the most part, the majority of people that I met were very involved, highly intelligent, very motivated people. They were people who wanted to change the world in some way, and I can understand historically why they were such a thing. And in the ’60s and ’70s, the idea that you had to change yourself before you change the world. Most of the big cults that we know, they want people that are skilled and can do a lot of work, and can be of service. That’s one of the big biases, people who join cults aren’t necessarily victims.

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