Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Man Called God (Pea Jays, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

A Man Called God is a remarkable movie that has its roots in the 1970’s in the careers of two men: Blaxploitation actor Christopher St. John and his son Kristoff. Christopher’s best-known credit is probably as the leader of the “Lummumbas,” the Black nationalist group who work with Black detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a Black businessman in the original 1971 Shaft. He was married to a white actress and had a son, Kristoff; then they broke up and he married another white actress, Maria, and the couple raised Kristoff. In 1972 Christopher St. John wrote, produced, directed and starred in Top of the Heap, about a Black police officer who harbored a Walter Mitty-esque dream to be the first African-American to become an astronaut and visit the moon — A Man Called God contains a film clip from this which suggests it might be a movie worth seeing — only he got a reputation in Hollywood as a troublemaker and got blacklisted (at least that’s what his son says in the narration to A Man Called God; the usual legend is that the formal blacklist was over by 1972 but it’s entirely possible that the underground blacklists, the subtle don’t-hire lists that had circulated in Hollywood for decades, did in the elder St. John’s career). At loose ends, Christopher and Maria St. John drifted into an involvement with Eastern religion and eventually became devotees of a guru named Sathya Sai Baba.

For anyone whose mental image of an Indian guru is an old guy with long hair and an unkempt beard — the appearance of Paramhansa Yogananda, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Meher Baba and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh — the first sight of Sai Baba in this movie is going to be startling: he was baby-faced, clean-shaven and, quite frankly, looked more African than Indian: he had a broad nose and his hair was in a tall “natural.” He always dressed in an orange robe — at least during his public appearances — and he taught what a writer for Creem magazine, covering the movement of Guru Maharaj Ji (the teenage guru who briefly emerged in the early 1970’s being promoted by his mother, who later fired him and replaced him with his elder brother; the reason a rock magazine like Creem was interested in him was that part of his entourage was a promising young rock musician named Freddie Mercury, who later became the lead singer and one of the two principal songwriters for Queen), called “the usual Hindu-based snake oil.” Actually, though its roots were clearly in Hinduism (which is, after all, the oldest of the world’s religions with a current mass following), Sai Baba claimed to be synthesizing all the world’s major religions in his teachings. He also — and this is where the title of the movie comes from — literally claimed to be God on Earth and to have (presumably in a previous incarnation) fathered Jesus Christ. Christopher and Maria St. John got so involved in Sai Baba’s organization that they ended up living in his main ashram in Puttaparthi, India — the tiny village where Sai Baba had been born and which turned into a major religious center as his movement grew. Because he had moviemaking experience, Christopher St. John was hired by Sai Baba to make a documentary film that would hopefully recruit more people to the movement. He brought filmmaking equipment and shot many of the activities around the compound until he was abruptly ordered to leave — A Man Called God starts out with his being thrown out of the ashram, hints at dark secrets the St. Johns had found out about the guru that made him want to get rid of them, and the rest of the film describes the story of their relationship with the movement.

The bulk of the film consists of the footage Christopher St. John shot during his months at the ashram, which came to an abrupt end right after Sai Baba’s elaborate 55th birthday celebration in November 1980; when Sai Baba threw him out he demanded that St. John leave all his film behind, but in a daring escape his son (who co-wrote the script with Marc Clebanoff and delivers the narration in first-person) compared to the film Midnight Express, the elder St. John got the film out of India with him and resettled in Hollywood — where the footage sat for over two decades until his son finally hit on the idea of making a movie out of it and telling his own tale of his life in the ashram and how and why it ended. Kristoff St. John and Marc Clebanoff (who’s credited on the postcard announcing the film merely as co-editor but clearly had a key role in writing the script and working out the film’s overall structure) build a quite good suspense story out of the experience and his dad’s old footage (it’s because virtually everything we see was shot by Christopher St. John that he is officially credited as director, even though the film’s page lists Kristoff as the director). At first they show the positive aspects of Sai Baba’s movement, including the enormous amount of money they put into hospital construction and social improvements around India in general and Puttaparthi in particular — for once, you think, one of these gurus actually shows a sign of giving a damn about the grinding poverty afflicting much of the human race and especially much of his home country — and it’s only later that Kristoff and Clebanoff start dropping hints of the darker side of the story. Kristoff, who in the old footage is shown wearing Indian shirts and a “natural” of his own that makes him look more like Sai Baba’s son than Christopher St. John’s, recalls how dazzled he was by Sai Baba’s purported power to materialize objects, including rings, medallions and sacred vibhuti ash, out of thin air. As a boy in Sai Baba’s ashram, Kristoff was jazzed when Sai Baba gave him a silver medallion he had supposedly created out of thin air; only years later, after his and his family’s disillusionment, did Kristoff realize that this was a simple sleight-of-hand trick that any stage magician could do (which reminded me of Harry Houdini’s famous campaign against phony spiritualists, and in particular the $10,000 reward he offered to any spiritualist or medium who could do something Houdini could not duplicate himself with his skills as a stage magician — needless to say, nobody ever collected).Things got worse as hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from India but also from all over the world, thronged the ashram for the three weeks of celebration before Sai Baba’s birthday in 1980 — and Christopher St. John, with his film credits as both actor and director, was ordered to direct a play about Jesus Christ (Sai Baba’s son, remember? At least to the true believers!).

Though Kristoff recalls that there were certain parts of the ashram he and his crew were not allowed to film, they did get to record one of the rehearsals for this play — the scene in which Jesus is throwing the moneylenders out of the Temple (you remember) — which looks as wretched as you’d expect given that he was working with a nonprofessional cast and an awfully stiff script (the film hints, though it doesn’t come right out and say, that Sai Baba wrote it himself). Around this time [spoiler alert!] someone else, a pre-pubescent boy, came to Kristoff with a story that Sai Baba had lured him into his private room and, under the guise of doing a “purification” ritual called “genital oiling,” jacked him off and forced him to suck the guru’s cock. Kristoff believed it instantly because Sai Baba had similarly molested him, and after it was over had sworn him to secrecy and told him never to tell anyone, even his parents. As narrated on screen, the molestations didn’t sound all that different from the sorts of things Roman Catholic priests had been doing during all those long years that even the priests who weren’t molesting kids were covering for those who did, but there’s a difference between a pedophile who’s part of a hierarchy that’s supposed to be supervising him and making sure these things don’t happen (or are dealt with properly, quickly and definitively when they do) and a pedophile who’s also the unchallenged head of a religious movement with millions of followers worldwide who literally think he’s God. Indeed, A Man Called God opens with a montage of similarly destructive cult leaders, including Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate, and Bhagwan — as well as some like David Koresh whose transgressions against his followers included sexual exploitation. (Kristoff missed one particularly intriguing parallel: Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Mormon Church, who when he wanted a younger, hotter wife than the one he’d married legally simply declared that it was the new doctrine of his church that men not only could but should marry more than one wife.) More recently there’s been the Vanity Fair exposé of Bikram Chaudhury, founder of the Bikram school of yoga, who didn’t go after kids but did lure 20-something women to his movement with promises of training them to be yoga teachers and then, at least according to the Vanity Fair article, got them alone and out-and-out raped them.

Though Sai Baba died in 2011 (Kristoff, leading a Q&A after the screening, was asked if he and his dad deliberately waited until the guru died before starting the film about him, but he said they had already got it underway while Sai Baba was still alive, albeit in ill health and clearly on his way out), his pedophile exploits did get exposed during his lifetime in TV documentaries produced by the public broadcasting company of Denmark in 2002 and the BBC in 2004. The BBC film, The Secret Swami, claimed that there were hundreds of boys who had been victimized by Sai Baba, but that they and their parents wouldn’t complain to the law because so many of the most powerful people in India were members of Sai Baba’s faith. Kristoff and Clebanoff include clips from The Secret Swami in A Man Called God, including a chilling interview the BBC did with one of Sai Baba’s most powerful non-Indian devotees, Isaac Tigrett, founder and owner of the Hard Rock Café and House of Blues chains. (Ironically, Kristoff was staying at a Hard Rock Inn during his trip to San Diego to show his movie.) Tigrett is shown being asked if his attitude towards Sai Baba would change if it was established that the guru was a pedophile who was regularly molesting pre-pubescent boys — and Tigrett replied that it wouldn’t make a difference because Sai Baba had done so much good in the world that compared to that, even if he had molested kids, it wouldn’t matter to him. A Man Called God had a definite streak of homophobia in that it suggested that Sai Baba had relationships with adult men as well, and Kristoff’s writing seemed to reflect a view that this was part of the same moral evil that caused the guru to molest him and other boys at the Puttaparthi ashram — he doesn’t come right out and say that Sai Baba was a bad man because he was Gay, but the hint was there and it was strong enough to annoy me. In the where-are-they-now epilogue, Kristoff tells the story of Satyajit Sailan, who after Sai Baba’s death filed a lawsuit challenging the claims of Baba’s relatives on his $9 billion estate and saying that the guru had meant it to be left in trust and administered by Sailan, whom Kristoff claims was not only Baba’s aide but also his boyfriend.

Though I could have wished for a bit more material in A Man Called God about what attracted people in general and the St. Johns in particular to Baba’s cult (to me that’s the most interesting aspect of cult stories: why do people get involved in these things in the first place; and once they’re involved, how do they rationalize staying in even as they learn some of the cult’s darker secrets?), the film as it stands is a chilling tale which alleges that Sai Baba’s crimes didn’t stop at raping boys; he also had his security people (some of whom are shown in the film in rather grainy still photos — and they look as fearsome and intimidating as you’d expect) simply murder people who were in his way, confident that his connections with some of the most powerful people in India would ensure that these crimes would never even be investigated, much less prosecuted. There’s also a sense of tragedy in that Maria St. John was so convinced that Sai Baba was a righteous man and a legitimate spiritual leader that she not only refused to believe her stepson’s tale that the guru had molested him (would she have been more likely to believe him if he’d been her flesh-and-blood son instead of her stepson, I wondered), and when her husband and stepson were thrown out she refused to leave, camping out on the outside of the ashram, pleading for an audience with Baba and leaving only when those hefty, intimidating security guards told her to get out or they’d do her bodily harm. Like most cult stories, A Man Called God is another illustration of how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; once you’re surrounded by people who literally believe you’re a prophet, or a god, or some other sort of “special” person (the entourages of celebrities, especially notoriously reclusive ones like Michael Jackson, are not that different from the literal cult shown in this film), and who have essentially granted you the power of life and death over them, they will do just about anything to stay in your good graces — and you’d have to be an extraordinarily humble and saintly human being not to take advantage of that for some sinister purpose or another: financial, ideological (there’s a sequence in the Baba camp that was strikingly like the scenes of the tents in Nuremberg where people were staying for the Nazi rally in Triumph of the Will, and later Kristoff and Clebanoff use a clip from Triumph of Hitler being driven in triumph, in the literal sense with which the Romans used the word, through the city’s streets) or sexual.