“The Family” wasn’t designed as a sneak attack. In creating the newly released five-part documentary series for Netflix, director Jesse Moss wanted to be very upfront about his goals for profiling the secretive organization known as The Fellowship.
Using the experiences of reporter Jeff Sharlet as a starting point in his research, Moss wanted to present a full view of the organization’s history, using a bevy of filmmaking styles and techniques to connect the Fellowship’s decades-long journey from a small prayer gathering to a global entity that sways public opinion in countries around the globe. So rather than request interviews or access under vague or misrepresented pretext, Moss wrote the organization directly about his aims.
“At the beginning of the process, I went and wrote a letter to the Fellowship that said, very straightforward, ‘I would like to come and talk to you about your work. I’d like to come and visit the Cedars,'” Moss said, referring to one of the Fellowship’s central DC meeting places. “If I could come and be there with my camera and not ask questions, I’d love to do that. And of course their polite response was, ‘No, you can’t do any of it.’ And we persisted and worked from the outside in, and slowly gained the trust of some people who are considered themselves affiliates or friends of the Family who did sit down and talk with us.”
“The Family” includes a number of on-camera interviews with Sharlet — clergy who have become disaffected by the group’s aims — and international political figures who’ve traveled in Fellowship circles with varying levels of direct interaction. But Moss also incorporates conversations with a few individuals who are still close to the central infrastructure of the organization. Given his transparent aims for the series, he said that the interview process with these individuals didn’t have the tension or combativeness you might otherwise expect.
“I didn’t feel like I was walking on eggshells. There were no ground rules to the interview. Once they agreed, we went in and talked for hours. It wasn’t like I went in with a Mike Wallace hit-list,” Moss said. “We started this interview with Larry Ross and he wanted to have a prayer with us before we started. And that’s pretty unusual. I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed somebody who wanted to start an interview with a prayer. When we were in the edit room, I thought it was an important moment and almost more interesting than anything he said.”
Another notable individual who participated in the series is former President Jimmy Carter, who helped Moss illustrate the series’ goal is not to issue a blanket denunciation toward those who value their own faith. It’s the accompanying lack of transparency that becomes a central point of condemnation throughout what “The Family” is chronicling. When he started work on the series, the timeliness of that conclusion is one that Moss wasn’t even sure would even be there.
“People of faith have a role and a place in public life and politics. Talking to Jimmy Carter about his faith as president, that’s an important conversation. But why is this organization so secret? What are they actually doing?” Moss said. “A big question for me in embarking on the project was, ‘Are they relevant today?’ Jeff’s book came out 10 years ago. But on our watch, Maria Butina was arrested, charged with spying and infiltrating the National Prayer Breakfast. I think it links back to the kind of international alliance between those in the Christian right and how issues around LGBTQ rights are often the focal point of those alliances and how those cultural wars that have been lost in some cases in the United States are being fought elsewhere.”
As the runaway train of the 2020 presidential campaign barrels toward next November, there will be a number of programming decisions scrutinized through the lens of a perceived attempt to sway potential voters. (FX faced tough questions at the Television Critics Association press tour last week about the timing of their upcoming Clinton impeachment-themed season of “American Crime Story.”) Moss said the choice to release the series this summer was more a function of the ending they discovered. Understanding how this avowed Evangelical group rationalized their support of a Trump presidency was a more pressing focus than trying to include the uncertainty of what’s to come.
“I didn’t think too much about the electoral calendar. When we started the project late in 2016, the Alabama special election was the one electoral event that I thought might have some relevance, not that it had anything to do with The Fellowship, but it was a really extreme conversation,” Moss said. “But we’d have two years of the Trump administration to really look at his faith advisory council, and arriving at some deeper understanding of the theology [International Christian Leadership founder] Abraham Vereide envisioned, in which you preach to the up and out and not the down and out, that politicians are chosen by God, that Donald Trump is God’s chaos candidate, God’s instrument. That just helped me understand the current moment. The carnage of the 2020 election, that’ll be its own horror show.”
One of Moss’ biggest breakthroughs was attending the National Prayer Breakfast, a gathering that’s as important to “The Family” as the series argues it is to the Fellowship as a whole. Going to the 2018 edition, Moss was not only able to get some first-person perspective on how the vaunted event functions, it also led to some chance encounters that helped change the scope of the series.
It was in an elevator that Moss met former Congressman Mark Siljander, who eventually agreed to an interview when requests through more traditional channels had proven less fruitful. And it was in an open Q&A session that Moss crossed paths with a group of Portland residents who would help bring about one of the series’ more surprising turns: When Moss went to visit them last May, their one stipulation for agreeing to take part was that Moss participate in the group’s activities.
“I’ve never been in a small group like that and felt challenged by other men to be honest with myself. I found that kind of bracing and I thought, ‘This is a group I might actually go to more frequently if it was near where I live.’ I think the conversation around race felt very honest and real and I respected it,” Moss said. “I don’t think that’s where I or the audience expect to end up in Episode 5, but it’s where we found ourselves. I think it does represent something very true about the fellowship that I think Jeff [Sharlet] experienced that when he went to Ivanwald and you see a little bit of it in the dramatization, the intensity of that male brotherhood.”
True to form, the Fellowship has not yet made any official statement about “The Family.” But Moss hopes that members within and around the organization do take the time to watch, so they can see the attempts it makes to fill in areas surrounding previous public accounts.
“I’d like them to see beyond what Jeff Sharlet has to say,” Moss said. “They probably what, like, everybody would want — something very genial, benign, or flattering, but that’s not going to do anybody justice. My hope is that they see the conversations that we had in which they’re allowed to represent who they are and their beliefs in their own words. They should trust the audience, too, hopefully.”
“The Family” is currently available to stream on Netflix.