I was approximately four minutes into Cara Jones's Blessed Child when I shed my first tear, a tear partly of recognition and a tear partly borne out of my own quietly unresolved grief over a religious journey long ago left behind yet never really left behind.
For me, it was being raised a Jehovah's Witness, a faith my mother discovered not long after my birth and not long after her Catholic priest advised her that perhaps my inevitable death was somehow God's will. My mother didn't believe her priest, though I've never understood how that lack of belief somehow led to my young Democratic, Kennedy-supporting mother to find her way to the ultra-conservative, apolitical Jehovah's Witnesses.
It didn't make sense. It still doesn't.
I was in my late teens by the time I was kicked out of Jehovah's Witnesses for being gay.
For the record, I'm not gay. That was their way of dealing with my sexual abuse, though I've often thought that's part of what you get when you have pastorless congregations and appoint inexperienced church elders to deal with very real world problems.
But, I digress. This review is not about me. It's about Cara Jones.
An Emmy Award-winning journalist and founder of Storytellers for Good, Jones has crafted a film that was supposedly several years in the making. In reality, Blessed Child was a lifetime in the making.
More than a decade after leaving the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, also known as "the Moonies," Jones is working to break free from the religious cult that dominated her childhood while also challenging the long festering tensions, both real and imagined, within her family. Blessed Child isn't simply another film about another dysfunctional or abusive cult, but instead a surprisingly empathetic and understanding glimpse inside the search for family, the choices families make, how religion can both unite and separate and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, how sometimes love can win anyway.
It's evident only a few minutes into Blessed Child that while Jones left the Unification Church years ago, in many ways the belief system that guided her childhood lingered in her heart and mind and kept her bound in a myriad of ways. There's a sense of emotional unraveling that unfolds throughout the 74-minute Blessed Child, an Obscured Pictures release that saw its world premiere last year at DOC NYC in a pre-pandemic world.
To understand the power of that unraveling, one must realize that at the age of 20-years-old Jones found herself standing inside Seoul Olympic Stadium with her hand grasping the hand of a man she'd met just a month before and was about to marry. As was often a tradition in the Unification Church, she was among 10,000 brides and grooms - all dressed in uniform black suits and matching white wedding dresses. As was also a tradition, Rev. Moon himself arranged the marriage using 8x10 photographs.
It was a day that Jones had eagerly anticipated, yet upon watching Jones reflect on the day in Blessed Child it may also have been the day when the first sliver of a crack started to reveal itself in her membership in the only church she'd ever known. Born the daughter of her former atheist father and formerly Catholic mother, by the time Jones was born her family was actively involved in the Unification Church and it consumed their daily lives. Seemingly a favored family by the Moon family themselves for reasons that the film never really explains, the Jones's seemingly lived somewhat set apart and had a church-centered but otherwise fairly "normal" existence. Her father worked as an attorney, a fact that kept the family from experiencing the poverty and stark simplicity often associated with the church.
Yet, the longer Blessed Child plays the more obvious it is that the Unification Church truly consumed their lives to such a point that it was once believed that Cara Jones herself might end up matched to one of Rev. Moon's sons.
That didn't happen.
The Jones's were, however, a significant presence in the American hierarchy of the Unification Church and, in a somewhat surprising realization, her parents remain active church members who participated in and supported their daughter's making of Blessed Child despite their own self-acknowledged concerns that she would portray their beliefs negatively.
For some, the nuanced Blessed Child will seem a bit jarring. Yet, raised in a world where just about everything was black-and-white Jones committed herself to creating an empathetic film that recognized the gray.
It's a beautiful thing.
Yeah, there's that but.
It's a beautiful thing, but Blessed Child also captures the scars and wounds of being raised in this religious cult and in trying to maintain a semblance of a healthy relationship with parents who continue to choose that path despite seeing the ways that path has hurt their daughter and, as well, their son Bow, who serves as the film's cinematographer and whose coming out as gay led to his own disengagement from his childhood church and a Rev. Moon who had once, and probably more than once, joked about killing homosexuals. Bow's own woundedness is obvious throughout Blessed Child and a film about his own journey would be equally as compelling.
Blessed Child doesn't offer any easy solutions and, at times, appears to raise more questions than it answers along the way. Yet, there's something undeniably refreshing about a documentary that doesn't take the easy way out and simply paint the cult, and it is nearly always referred to by Jones as a cult, as all good or all bad. Instead, Jones accomplishes the almost unfathomable by building a bridge to her family and it's a bridge that ends up being remarkably sturdy.
Let's just so that both Cara and her parents are portrayed with vulnerability, honesty, and a respect for their humanity.
Again, it's a beautiful thing.
No "but" this time.
Blessed Child utilizes a trove of never before seen footage from within the church along with home photographs and videos of the Jones family's life inside the Unification Church. The end result isn't so much understanding as it is empathy for everyone even as Jones doesn't shy away from the controversies that followed Rev. Moon and his family before his death in 2012.
Challenging her own assumptions and ours, Jones faces her fears and tiptoes her way toward a truth that will truly set her free and sometimes, as we learn toward Blessed Child's ending, the end is really just a new beginning.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic