Needing permission to use the bathroom, go from one room to another, or even cross to the other side of a room. Being disciplined by solitary confinement in a tiny space with a thin pad to sleep on and a bucket in which to relieve yourself. Or, perhaps, receiving punishment by having your bottom whipped with a leather strap by an adult staff member.
These are among the conditions endured by young people sent to Escuela Caribe, an evangelical Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic for LGBT and other “problem” teens. The school is the subject of a new feature-length documentary film, Kidnapped for Christ, which is being test-screened Saturday at the Sacramento International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
The film, directed by Kate Logan, focuses on David, a straight-A student from Colorado who was sent to Escuela Caribe in May 2006 after he told his parents he was gay. It features interviews with other former Escuela Caribe students as well, including Julia Scheeres, whose 2005 memoir Jesus Land details the abuse she suffered in the 1980s at the school, which Scheeres calls a dumping ground for the children of wealthy evangelicals.
Kidnapped for Christ is a far cry from the film Logan originally intended to make. The first-time director, who describes herself as a former evangelical Christian, first heard of Escuela Caribe when she went on a missionary trip to the Dominican Republic in 2004. The staff told her it was a school for young people with problems — runaways, juvenile delinquents, drug addicts. A couple of years later, when she was a film student at Biola University, a Christian school near Los Angeles, she decided Escuela Caribe would make a good subject for a short documentary. She received access to film at the school for seven weeks in the summer of 2006.
“I totally had a different idea of what the school was,” Logan says. What she witnessed at the school, along with her reading of Scheeres’s book, convinced her that its mission was not to offer compassionate assistance to teens with serious problems but rather to break their will in the name of making them model young Christians. “The whole philosophy was to take away any modicum of control the students had,” she says.
About 50 students were at the school while she was filming. They had been sent there by their families for a variety of supposed transgressions — and being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender was certainly considered a transgression. Logan says she’s not sure how many students were LGBT, as they were forbidden to discuss those matters, although a few, such as David, confided in her.
David, like many young people at Escuela Caribe, had been taken from his home, without notice, under cover of night, and had not been told where he was going or if he would ever return — in essence, kidnapped. While at the school, the students often did backbreaking but otherwise meaningless physical labor, and they found that all their actions were controlled by the staff, Logan says. And the use of corporal punishment was commonplace.