Tom Dumican has spent the last decade directing and producing documentary films for the likes of National Geographic, VICE, History and MSNBC. No Greater Law, which tells the story of an Idahoan Christian fundamentalist sect who refuse their dying children modern medicine because they believe it is witchcraft, marks Dumican’s feature-film directorial debut.
For five or six years, I knew I wanted to do a feature-documentary set in America on the subject of religion and extreme faith. I got obsessed with this particular story after speaking to Linda Martin, an ex-member of the Followers of Christ. She told me that hundreds of children in Idaho had been allowed to die prematurely from treatable conditions – things like pneumonia, diabetes and food poisoning –because their parents in the sect believed that modern medicine, even to the point of taking an aspirin, was sorcery. Their position was that if God wanted to cure the child, he would – if not, he’d welcome them into heaven, and it wasn’t their place to meddle in his plans. Linda told me that nobody in Idaho had investigated any of these deaths, and nobody had prosecuted the parents – I found that unbelievable, but sure enough I did some digging and Idaho has religious protection laws that prevent law enforcement from investigating these deaths as criminal cases. I knew it needed to be a film straight away. I’d never heard of anything like this and, when I sounded out other people on the idea, neither had they. From the outside it seemed extraordinary, disturbing and heartbreaking
Hundreds of children in Idaho had been allowed to die because their parents in the sect believed that modern medicine was sorcery.
So, I knew more or less straight away that I wanted to spend the next few years of my life making this film. However, if I was going to do it right, I’d need deep access –Me and my producer, Jesse Lichtenstein got our first proper introduction to the Followers of Christ through a local politician but understandably, they were reticent about going on camera, especially the parents who’d lost children because of their beliefs. Getting access to law enforcement, ex-sect members, anti-sect activists and politicians was relatively straightforward; all it took was a couple of face-to-face meetings. Getting the sect members themselves onside took an entire year of patience, writing letters, taking meetings with politicians who were connected to the church, going to baptisms, having dinner with the elders – all these things before they’d agree to go on camera. At the end, it all came down to their faith: they said they’d pray and wait for a sign from God before committing. Eventually they felt compelled and committed to tell their story on camera for the first time. I think one thing that played in our favour was that I was British – I think the people of rural Idaho found that exotic, and that they had reservations about American journalists and their agenda. I used to have this line, “I don’t even know what the First Amendment is!” and that went down pretty well with them, because it showed I wasn’t coming at this from any of the typical positions of political bias – I wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican or even worse in their eyes, an American liberal.
Nobody wanted them to speak to us, not even their wives, brothers and children.
Eventually, they understood that we might be critical but would tell their story with empathy, sensitivity and respect. Now we had to find our main character, and ours was a man named Dan Sevy, a patriarch in the sect who’d already lost two children through his refusal of modern medicine. Once he came on board, other members of the sect were willing to speak to us, but there were still conditions – no filming with women or children among other things. Dan had a big personality and was a musician too, so he was a bit more worldly than the others – it felt like he enjoyed the camera and relished the opportunity to dominate the conversation at a time when I think he believed the laws protecting their way of life could well change. I think he wanted to come out fighting, and he understood that cinema was a space where you could be more poetic and lyrical, and that maybe the deeper story you could tell in a feature-length film would do the sect more favours than a news piece or TV show. It was tough for everybody especially the active and ex-members of the Followers of Christ, they were kind of like whistleblowers in their own community – nobody wanted them to speak to us, not even their wives, brothers and children. I respect that they put themselves on the line, knowing a more liberal audience would have their own preconceived ideas.
We’d get a call saying, “A baby died last night, do you wanna come and film the briefing?”
Ego and morale management
Due to the incendiary nature of the subject matter, everyone was very wary of us. They all had a kind of default rhetoric that kicked in whenever they had to go through the motions of what they felt was a normal media response. Our job was to break through that. We wanted to hit the underlying emotion of what they were feeling, not to hear their everyday protocol or standard media answers. Trying to get people to confide in you in that way while juggling lots of different viewpoints and personalities was the biggest practical challenge we faced. How do you convince a sheriff to let you into a briefing with his detectives, or observe a coroner while they process a faith healing case, when they know you’re going to be chatting in an even-handed way to sect members later that same day? Then there was the question of keeping the crew happy. The nature of the film meant there was no real schedule and it required incredible flexibility, emotional resolve and instinct from cinematographer Arthur Mulhern and sound recordist Creed Spencer to get these scenes in the can. We’d get a call saying, “A baby died last night, do you wanna come and film the briefing?” and everything would go out the window for the next few days while we followed that story. Being around families and law enforcement who were dealing with babies and children who had just passed away, and in many instances could have been easily saved was the hardest thing. We tried to prepare for it but that was basically impossible. Sometimes you have to put the camera down and take a moment to walk through the morality and ethics of what you’re doing.
After just under two years in Idaho, it was time for us to start turning our footage shot into a film in post-production. On previous projects, I’ve erred hugely by relying on guide music throughout the editing process and then bringing in a composer right at the end to kind of replace the pre-existing songs I’d had in my head for various scenes with original music. It never worked out and I was always left really disappointed. So, on No Greater Law I started working with a composer named Stuart Miller very early on, and told him about the stark, minimalist score I was looking for. When it was time to start the edit, he’d already done about 70 percent of the music cues, so we could work with the actual music from the start of the post-production process while he fine-tuned what he’d done already to fit the footage. As it was my first feature doc, I wanted to work with a really experienced editor, so I brought in Mags Arnold who had previously worked with Michael Winterbottom – she’d done The Trip and various feature films with him. I think you need to aim high – I was bowled over by the level of talent we could potentially access – and lock in your composer, editor, editor assistant, colourist and sound designer as early as possible. You have to be highly organised in post – we had to turn 55 days of material into a film in 20 weeks. You can’t compromise at the final hurdle. Also, at that stage everyone was excited about the project and willing to work the extra two or three hours in the day we needed to get it over the line in the best shape possible. The editor would make a five-day week seem like an eight-day week, and it was the same with the colourist. People were willing to come in early and go home late. It was great to get that goodwill and passion from people.
You have to find a way to drop a five- or ten-minute tape on the desk of a funder or producer.
For anyone wanting to do a feature doc, you should get a “promo”, or a “sizzle”, or whatever you call a short preview tape these days – something to demonstrate to potential backers that you have three things: 1) access, 2) characters that work on screen, and 3) a stylistic and aesthetic approach that is interesting, cinematic and out of the ordinary. You need to reassure people that you can do this – if it’s your first feature-documentary, people are naturally taking a risk, and I think a tape to persuade them that you know what you’re doing can put you at the front of the queue when you come up against others who maybe have just done a visual deck or written treatment. Obviously this approach requires a bit of self-funding, or a small amount of money, and luckily we were able to call in favours. If no one owes you any favours and you can’t afford to go somewhere and shoot it yourself, do Skype interviews and hook up with local stringers who can go and film something for you. You have to find a way to drop a five- or ten-minute tape on the desk of a funder or producer. For us, it was the most important thing – we made the tape and in four months we were working with Pulse Films and A&E IndieFilms, the feature documentary production arm of A+E Networks, who came on board to fund the whole thing.
You have to think from the start: Where is this going to land? Who’s the audience? Who’s the broadcaster?
Getting it screened at a festival
Once Pulse Films and A&E IndieFilms were involved, it was always at the back of our minds that we’d aim to get it shown at one of the major documentary festivals and it was just about making sure that the first cut programmers saw was as close to the finished film as possible. It was nerve-wracking; we really wanted to debut at Tribeca Film Festival and luckily for us it was well received by the team curating the program. It was fantastic to be one of those 12 films in the documentary competition and have that opportunity to screen alongside today’s most exciting filmmakers. You have to think from the start: Where is this going to land? Who’s the audience? Who’s the broadcaster? A&E IndieFilms, with their pedigree of docs like Cartel Land, Jesus Camp and The Imposter, really brought that to the party. Tribeca felt like a natural home for it.
I think looking back, first of all you have to be obsessed with – or at a minimum passionate about – what you’re making and your characters. With a feature-documentary you could be spending anything from one to five years on this topic and with these people. Naturally there will be highs and lows and you need that level of fervour to pull you through. Most important of all is to secure your access – we’re all reading the same newspapers and online articles for inspiration, so you have to get in there fast, get the access, and be brave: get people signed to exclusives if you need to. Once you have that, you have a fighting chance of getting it financed. You need to be bold with who you approach to be part of your team, too, and the final thing I would say is that it can pay to think like a businessperson – ultimately, you’re creating a product that needs to be financed; in some cases your asking for upwards of £300k, £500k – 1M in some cases. Filmmakers at the beginning of a project can often overlook this side of things but if you have a clear finance plan and strategy from the get go you’re in a good place, and not as reliant on broadcasters or funders to make your mind up for you.