[Editor's note: This post contains spoilers for the finale of Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence, now streaming on Hulu.]
In the final episode of Hulu’s docuseries Stolen Youth, director Zach Heinzerling goes where very filmmakers have gone before — inside the home of people who still believe in their cult leader. Viewers meet Isabella Pollok and Felicia Rosario shortly after Larry Ray has been arrested for the long-term abuse of over half a dozen young people, most of whom he met when he moved into his daughter’s campus housing at Sarah Lawrence College. But while most of his victims have escaped him, Pollok and Rosario are holed up in a run-down New Jersey house, waiting for his release. WIth matter-of-fact confidence, they look at Heinzerling’s camera to explain how they’ve been targeted by the government, how people in their lives have tried to poison them, and how Larry Ray will be vindicated.
It’s a disquieting scene, and the intense impact may be hard for some viewers to shake. Recently, Primetimer spoke to Heinzerling about how he secured this interview and how he approached the responsibility of documenting people at such a fragile point in their lives.
How did you meet Isabella and Felicia?
Zach Heinzerling: I actually met them a few months into the process of making this [series]. I had called Larry to say, “Hey, I read this article [in New York magazine about the cult]. I’m curious to hear your side.” He replied, and we met, and he brought Isabella and Felicia to the meeting. That meeting was mostly Larry, just talking ad nauseam about all of the heroic situations that he had been in, and the crisis he solved in Kosovo, and his relationship with Gorbachev, yada, yada. And they basically were silent. It was almost as if I were meeting people that had this entire world created for them. They were completely outside of reality, where they were convinced that the sky was red, when I was seeing the sky was blue. But at the time, I didn't know enough about what their reality was based on to really understand the depth of the manipulation that they were under.
How did you reconnect, without Larry Ray there to dominate the conversation?
Heinzerling: After Larry was indicted. I ran into them outside of the courtroom and handed them my phone number and said, “Look, if I can help in any way.” And I had a relative who worked at this nonprofit called Sanctuary for Families, that helps victims of gender-based violence and domestic abuse, so I gave them my contact there. They reached out, and Sanctuary helped them with some legal advice and some sort of temporary stipend, to help them get back on their feet. That started our relationship, and I think they saw me as someone who would just listen to them. And that wasn't judgmental.
Can you describe what it was like inside that New Jersey house where you met them?
Heinzerling: The floors were completely ripped up. You walk in, and there's junk everywhere. The carpet has been pulled up. It’s just concrete on the flooring. Everyone's sleeping on air mattresses. There are piles and piles of expensive tools everywhere. There amongst the rubble, there are insanely expensive appliances. The backyard is a disaster zone. And they had explanations for all this.
How did you go into that situation without judging them, or calling someone to get them out of there?
Heinzerling: It’s really about meeting them where they are – not trying to rescue them. I'm not trying to convince them that they're in trouble. I’m just there to listen to them and become an ally. And that's basically what that time in New Jersey was: It was listening to them explain their side of the story, because they had been met with the reaction of, “You’re crazy” every time they tried to explain that they were poisoned, that Larry had been poisoned, that there was this evil international conspiracy out to get him.
What do you feel the series gains from showing Isabella and Felicia at this moment in their lives?
Heinzerling: It’s important because in stories about psychological manipulation, brainwashing, coercion, you don't often get to see the victim or the survivor while they're under the influence of the manipulator. For obvious reasons, the manipulator is always in control. He's in control of who they’re interacting with. So this was just perfect timing, when I entered their lives, that I was viewed as a trustworthy individual. But for me, the goal was to get them help. And also to listen to them, like I said. I think one of the amazing aspects of documentary is you really do get to live in the experience of someone else's life and empathize with them as you're doing your work. This was a way of life that was beyond any I could ever have imagined and certainly a perilous one. It's one of immediate danger and need, but also one that I think you can watch and empathize with. You can see what it’s really like to be quote-unquote “brainwashed” and be completely at ease saying things that make absolutely no sense. You can understand the depth of the manipulation. And for a film that has so many terrible things that happen, I think seeing these women in that place is just especially important.
It’s striking that when you’re speaking to Felicia and Isabella, the style of the filmmaking changes. There aren’t any cuts to other people sharing their perspectives. There aren’t any cuts to news items. There are just long, steady shots of the two women in this house.
Heinzerling: I'm attracted to that style of filmmaking, where as an audience, you can watch life unfold, and you don't have to necessarily explain what's going on. You just feel it and you see it. If you were to intercut explanations of what was going on, or edit in opposing views, it would explicitly remind the audience that these people had been manipulated. And I didn't think that that was necessary. I wanted to present their story as it unfolded, which was kind of like experiencing it. I guess what I'm saying is the process of me documenting them became similar to the way that [the encounter] is presented in the film, which is without judgment, without interrupting their own explanation of where they are. You know, that third episode is longer than the other two, because the scenes play out more like a Cinéma vérité film.
How do the first two episodes prepare us for what happens in Episode Three?
Heinzerling: Those first two episodes give you the context to watch that [interview with Felicia and Isabella] and make something of it. You're not confused. You know what's going on. But you're also incredibly heartbroken, especially for Isabella, who can't seem to find her way out. [Note: By the end of the series, Felicia does escape the cult, but Isabella’s future seems more uncertain.] You understand that she's dug deeper in. Larry manipulated her from a younger age, and you can feel the connection she has, that it’s unwavering. And by that point, we know how he manipulated her, manipulated her mother, all of all these things, but we can still feel her feelings for him.
It really is clear that she’s passionate about this man, even though we know he’s been controlling her.
Heinzerling: You understand it’s a real connection. It’s programming, but it's not programming in the sense that you would program a robot. The feelings are real. And I think the only way for an audience to experience that is to let the scenes play out and not undercut them with judgment. I think the process of them talking to me became a kind of mirror of their own thoughts to themselves. That's one way of helping them. It’s one way of giving them space to figure out what's going on, on their own. And the style of the third episode had to match that idea.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence is now streaming on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.
TOPICS: Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence, Hulu, Zach Heinzerling