Cult documentaries have an enchanting appeal. Stories of mind control are so interesting because the viewer puts themselves in the subject's shoes, trying to understand why people fall victim to indoctrination and are led to such extreme beliefs. While many of these documentaries, like Going Clear and Wild, Wild Country, are critically acclaimed, this 1994 film explores a relatively unknown cult that may be the most dangerous of them all.
Children of God is a 1994 hour-long documentary exploring the doomsday cult of the same name. It follows the women of the Padilla family, who had 7 children while in the cult. Originally called Teens for Christ, Children of God seemed like a wholesome, youth-focused Christian sect that sought to win over the world for Jesus. They had outposts in dozens of countries and communicated with their leader David Berg through a then-cutting-edge technology: VHS tapes.
Then, things started to go south. Berg, a mysterious leader who rarely left hiding, communicated to his followers through strange comic-like missives known as the "Mo Letters" (named after his nickname for himself, Moses David). Through these letters, Berg forbade the use of contraceptives and promoted a new kind of evangelization — "flirty fishing," where women sought to seduce men in order to convert them.
At first, it seems like this documentary is just detailing the group's weird beliefs. Helen Mirren narrates the strange creed — they believed the second coming of Jesus Christ was due to occur in 1993, so formal education wasn't a priority. The cult had protocol over every aspect of the Padilla's life, from how much coffee they drank to how much toilet paper they used. On the surface, it seemed like nothing more than an extreme youth group: singing songs, making music videos, and preaching in a way children could relate to.
But what initially began as a 1960s-esque free love opinion of sex quickly turned abusive. Child abuse, in particular, ran rampant in the community and affected the Padilla girls personally. It's heartbreaking to watch, especially when juxtaposed with the whimsical drawings of David Berg as a lion telling women to use their sexual wiles for good.
While the documentary follows the women of the Padilla family, there's one absence. One of the daughters, Shuly, died while the family was living within the cult in Costa Rica. The story of her life, and in particular her death, is so devastating it will stay with you for weeks afterward. This isn't a documentary for the faint of heart, but it's a story that deserves to be told and heard.
David Berg died in 1994, but the impact of his work is everywhere. Celebrities like Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan grew up within the community and have spoken about their past. Berg's son, known as "Davidito," sought revenge for the abuse he suffered and murdered his former nanny in 2005. While this documentary only focuses on one family, the Padillas are a microcosm of the effect of this cult on countless people, an effect we'll probably never know the true scope of.
Children of God is now streaming on Netflix.