"Former Cult Member Hears Music for the First Time" Online Premiere
/ The Face Magazine
Kate has had quite the life. Or, perhaps, quite the no-life.
She was “imprisoned” from birth by her parents, members of an unnamed cult. It sounds like they kept her utterly enclosed and completely isolated from the world. “I’m very confused about everything,” she says, falteringly. “It was horrible what they did to me, what they did to us.”
Music, they told her, was “bad”, something that “only bad people listened to”. Her horizons were clearly as limited as her vocabulary seems now.
Aged, by the looks of her, in her mid-twenties, Kate is finally free. The location of her isolation and the manner of her escape from her parents are unclear, but she’s now safe in a house in the hills above Los Angeles. As she speaks, she seems to be processing an onrush of new information.
“I take each day as a gift,” the former cult member says, eyes wide, smile beatific. But, still, there’s a shadow on her face. Brainwashing isn’t easily undone.
Today’s gift, captured by the cameras of Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli, is hearing Nocturne No. 4 by Gabriel Fauré. But this novel experience isn’t simply hearing an iconic piece by a legendary late-19th century French composer.
It’s hearing music – any music – all music – for the first time.
How do the rest of us compute that? How do we – bombarded by music, art, stimuli, connections, experiences – comprehend that? How do we – so overwhelmed by things to click and link and like and share – decide what to listen to, watch, consume?
It’s that disconnect that Borgli wanted to explore in his new short – a film commissioned by The Face with the simple overall brief to “comment on modern culture”.
“Don’t take for granted the beauty and effect of art and music.” - Kristoffer Borgli
The 34-year-old kept things simple, from the title onwards: Former Cult Member Hears Music For the First Time. His set up was equally uncluttered: Kate, dressed in blue jeans and blue t‑shirt, on a padded bench in a bright, light lounge, sitting bolt upright as the music begins to play.
“The very first piece of inspiration came from an online video about a Christian mum who listens to rap music accidentally in her car with her child in it,” recalls Borgli, a director known for well-received shorts like Whateverest and the feature DRIB. “And she is so upset about it that she goes home to make a video, where she recites the lyrics and starts crying. And I thought that that itself was a piece of art.
“But, of course, it was also all so real,” he adds. So he asked himself: what was he finding so interesting?
“And I think one of the things was getting to experience music through her ears and having her completely alien reaction to it – that was interesting. But then that was only one piece of the puzzle.”
Then his next thoughts became: why did she have that tearful reaction? Why, after her first response, did she want to persist with – double down on – her upset? Whence that compulsion to push through. To click through, even.
“And I think that’s when I started thinking about all those clickbait journalistic videos: ‘Colourblind person sees orange for the first time.’ ‘Deaf person hears for the first time.’”
He categorises such streaming-friendly and viral-ready clips as “shallow, seemingly humanistic, seemingly well-meaning journalistic endeavours”, and rightly highlights out their ubiquity online.
Borgli wanted to address that trend, to explore it. He wanted, if you like, to exploit the exploiters. So he cast around for a subject matter. Through a friend, he found Kate. And what he ended up shooting with Kate is something that – while not as shocking as what she says are the facts of her cult life – might leave viewers glued to their tabletops.
This powerful film, the debut video commission from The Face, was shown at Clermont-Ferrand in France, the world’s biggest short film festival, and selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “I’m happy they curated it and helped it be seen,” reflects Borgli a few weeks later, just ahead of the Los Angeles premier of Former Cult Member Hears Music For the First Time. “Sundance is a brand of quality, a door-opener.”
Now, crucially his message might be heard more widely. But, ultimately, what is that message that viewers can take from his film?
“Don’t take for granted the beauty and effect of art and music.” Equally, he concludes, “I want to flag the problems with sanctimonious altruism inside of journalism and the media.”
As to whether poor Kate would understand that last point, Kristoffer Borgli doesn’t answer. I guess we’ll have to watch his film to find out.