Cult docuseries don’t dig deep enough

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The Remnant Fellowship Church, which is at the center of The Way Down docuseries

The Remnant Fellowship Church, which is at the center of Lowering docuseries
Photo: HBO Max

In recent years, the number of cult documentaries has increased, with HBO in the lead. Premium Cable Network Tackled Scientology (Becoming Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief), NXIVM (The wish), QAnon (Q: In the storm), and the “cult of cults”, The gate of paradise. The latter was produced by HBO’s streaming arm, HBO Max, which is also the source of the latest entry for this growing work. The Way Down: God, Greed and the Worship of Gwen Shamblin is a five-part docu-series about the Remnant Fellowship Church and its exciting leader, whose zeal sent it after pious Christians and unbelievers.

As with many documentaries, the central story is one that always unfolds, but Lowering the filmmakers – director Marina Zenovich and producer Nile Cappello – had to face a major curve ahead of their series’ release. On May 29, a plane crashed into Percy Priest Lake in Tennessee, killing its seven passengers, including Remnant Fellowship founder Gwen Shamblin Lara and her husband, Joe Lara. Zenovich said The New York Times the team had failed to interview Shamblin Lara for the docuseries before his death, and they weren’t expecting that either; as seen in archival footage, the weight loss guru turned self-proclaimed prophet turned out to be one of the toughest interviewees when she came under scrutiny. Asked about some of her beliefs – she compared, almost happily, the forced starvation of those incarcerated with portion control – Shamblin Lara either turned defensive or was thrown off the set by one of her managers.

Zenovich and Cappello have incorporated the plane crash and the issue of succession to the leadership of Remnant Fellowship Church in their docuseries, which are released in two parts: the first three episodes aired September 30 on HBO Max, the two further installments are scheduled for next spring. This end-of-hour pivot is felt throughout the series (or at least the three episodes that are now available), which makes the same mistake of many streamed, scripted and unscripted shows – running the narrative can on the road and ask viewers to wait for a big payoff.

Lowering starts off quite promisingly, jumping back in time from the plane crash to a May 2019 deposition, when a provocative Shamblin Lara let criticism of her church bounce off her face and lacquered hair. As repulsive as her ideals are, Shamblin Lara is an undeniably compelling subject for an investigation, her imposing and haughty speech creating an aura of mystique around her (not to mention the fact that she literally has “sham” in her name. ). How did a former member of the Church of Christ, who was exceptionally oppressive to her followers, become the leader of her own church? Especially when the basis of her weight loss program, Weigh Down, was simple portion control, information that was already widely available when she launched in the 1990s?

Zenovich and Cappello set out to answer these questions, finding in equal measure the misogyny in evangelism and our appearance-obsessed culture. They build their docuseries on interviews with former members of the Remnant Fellowship, including Gina Graves and Teri Phillips, who joined Shamblin Lara Church after being indoctrinated for the first time in her weight loss program, as well as cult interventionist Reverend Rafael Martinez and investigative journalist / lawyer Paul. Morantz. Instead of head-talking with Shamblin Lara (or any senior member of the church leadership), there is plenty of Weigh Down video and lecture footage, as well as clips of the food guru’s depositions.

Following Shamblin Lara’s ascendancy is captivating on television – one interviewee marvels at his ability to establish what is essentially matrilineage in his church, given his upbringing in the Church of Christ. Lowering however, avoid painting Shamblin Lara as a sort of evangelical patroness of the South; its hypocrisy and the exclusivity of its organization are frequently denounced. Helen Byrd, one of the few black members of Remnant Fellowship, pokes fun at Shamblin Lara posing as a role model for other people’s behavior.

But you’ll need the investigative skills of Cappello or Morantz to keep up with all the threads of the story scattered throughout the first three episodes; there are so many time jumps and new players introduced. Lowering follows the pattern of the fraud / real crime docuseries as King tiger, distributing its revelations and using an emphatic score to punctuate its twists and hint at even more to come. Too often, however, the series drops one thread and throws another into the mix, or elicit overlapping anecdotes from former members of the Remnant Fellowship. The story of the Wingerds, whose daughter Delaney ultimately married Remnant Fellowship, spans three episodes. Theirs is undoubtedly a heartbreaking story, but it is almost undermined by the insistence on frequent breaks to increase tension.

Natasha Pavlovich

Natasha Pavlovich
Photo: HBO Max

The life and death of Josef Smith, who was murdered in 2003 by his parents Joseph and Sonya Smith, is all but nailed down at the end of the second episode. Joseph and Sonya were members of the Remnant Fellowship Church; they adopted the church’s guidelines for corporal punishment, which were adopted by Shamblin Lara, as evidenced by one of the many tapes distributed by his organization. Remnant Fellowship paid for the Smiths’ legal defense and maintained a website declaring their innocence. Although the Smiths were convicted of murder, the prosecution never sought to link Remnant Fellowship outright to their crimes.

This vein is largely untapped – aside from a brief interview with the Smith’s eldest son, there isn’t much contemporary commentary on this kind of brutality inflicted on the most vulnerable members of Remnant Fellowship, or how the Smith family interacted with the mostly white members, or how black teens like Autumn have been doing since leaving church. Instead of, Lowering sticks to clearer stories, like the controversial custody battle between Natasha Pavlovich and Joe Lara, or returns to images of Shamblin Lara proselytizing on how the appearances of his followers were a direct reflection of their righteousness.

It’s a pretty common pitfall for TV series: an abundance of ideas or stories creates suffocation and ultimately a feeling of dissatisfaction. HBO also appears to be boosted by the growing interest in cult documentaries (oh i wonder why), but in its rush to meet demand, it produced more of a curiosity than a full exploration. The remaining two episodes will cover the aftermath of the plane crash and the rise of Shamblin Lara’s successors. They could tie together the threads that ran in all directions in the first half of the series, but they seem just as likely to spread his attention further. The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Worship of Gwen Shamblin does not do much more with its litany of topics than recite them.


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