By Dom Cioffi
I was flipping through the tv channels this weekend when I caught an image of Kim Jong-un, the maniacal dictator of North Korea. I settled on the station for a moment and watched as an American filmmaker interviewed a family from Pyongyang, the country’s capital.
The family being interviewed was obviously on edge; their nervousness was palpable. Sitting close by listening to every word was a government handler, whose presence cast an ominous shadow over the conversation, much like the framed print of Kim Jong-un that adorned the living room wall. The formally dressed woman had a small notebook in her lap and wrote down nearly every word that was asked and answered.
The family were queried about life in North Korea and what their day-to-day activities were like. While they dutifully answered each question, nearly every response veered back to their unending admiration and love for the Dear Leader. In fact, the degree to which they showered praise on Kim Jong-un bordered on the absurd.
Had the basketball game I had been waiting to watch not started, I would have certainly consumed the rest of the program as I was mesmerized by the level of brainwashing these people were experiencing.
I’ve always had a morbid curiosity with North Korea and its isolated population. But I’m especially intrigued with the mental programming that occurs whenever a glorified individual becomes the central focus to someone else’s identity.
In a twist of serendipity, that same evening, as I was lying in bed waiting to fall asleep, YouTube recommended a video from the Dr. Phil Show.
The show was covering a distraught mother and her two daughters who were trying to reel in the cultish exploits of another family member. I watched as the family was interviewed, each giving their own interpretation of how their rogue sibling had gone off the rails.
And then Dr. Phil turned his attention to the attractive middle-aged woman who was teleconferencing in. On screen, she looked the picture of a true guru, propped up on multiple pillows with flowers strewn nearby and a brightly colored bow sitting atop her head. She smiled with that creepy smile that all cult leaders tend to have.
Dr. Phil was respectful (he’s always careful not to alienate any guest until he’s ready to pounce) and then asked her a series of questions about the group she oversees and her claim to be the embodiment of God.
She answered politely, but within 30 seconds, I could tell she was a major scam artist. And then Dr. Phil started to challenge a few of her claims, like her assertion that she can recall 534 separate lifetimes.
Dr. Phil also had on a former member of the group who realized after a month of sleep deprivation and mental abuse that it was an unhealthy environment. Her description of the living conditions and behavior of the leader were damning.
However, the most upsetting part of the interview came when Dr. Phil spoke with a couple of current members, two beautiful young women – no more than 25 years old – who were completely under the influence of mental programming. They heralded their leader as the reincarnation of God and spoke about numerous miracles that she performed on a daily basis.
The glassy-eyed looks and complete conviction of these two lost souls was enough to break your heart. All I could think was that they were someone’s daughters and how devastating that situation must feel as a parent.
I finished watching the Dr. Phil episode and obviously had cults on my mind because when I opened Netflix the next day and saw “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator,” I knew that was the film I needed to review. The 2019 documentary film follows the story of Bikram Choudhury, the Indian yogi master who started a revolution in fitness around the world while using his position to prey on the unknowing.
My wife and several of her friends were huge fans of Bikram yoga when it swept across the country several years ago. The super-heated rooms and special poses created a cult-like following wherever the studios opened.
This intriguing documentary follows the rise and fall of this tiny man from India who came to the U.S. seeking fame and fortune and ultimately got both, but not before ruining the lives of several of his most loyal followers.
I had listened to a podcast on this same subject about a year ago and was dumbfounded by what it uncovered. This documentary takes this malicious man’s behavior to the next level of understanding.
An overheated “B” for “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.