This is not your typical cult film. Don’t expect an exposé teeming with shocking abuses. There’s no daring escape story or dramatic liberation. “Blessed Child” offers an intimate and rare glimpse at a different side of the genre. At its heart, it’s a story about a family, who happened to be in a cult. Filmmaker Cara Jones was born into the Unification Church, a group known as the “Moonies,” along with her four brothers. When she decided to leave the church in her mid-20s, it was more difficult than she expected—not because of how she was going to leave, but what she was going to leave behind: her parents.
The film opens with Cara’s wedding day. She’s seen holding hands with her husband-to-be in her dress and veil, but next to them are thousands of other bride-and-groom couples, lined up in rows inside the Olympic stadium in Seoul, South Korea. Cara was married in a mass wedding presided over by the Unification Church’s leader, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who considered himself to be the Messiah chosen by Jesus to create peace and harmony on earth, whose goal was to unite all mankind into one giant family. And her husband? He was a man she had met a mere one month prior, after being matched to him using 8”x10” photographs. Not exactly the stuff of true love. In fact, she would later describe her husband as “a younger brother” in the film.
The mass wedding is arguably the most jaw-dropping moment in the doc, but there are plenty of others from Cara’s youth that didn’t make it onto the screen. “Most Sundays my family and I would wake up at 5 a.m., bow to pictures of Reverend Moon and his family, recite a pledge about our commitment to serving God’s will, and then go back to sleep,” Cara recounts to Topic. Other memories include: a year-long stint in Korea “so I could more deeply understand the founder’s language,” selling wind chimes in strip malls across America to raise money for the church, and preaching to strangers in Times Square. (You know your upbringing was different when most of your childhood stories make good bar stories.)
But there’s a reason why these familiar cult trappings don’t make it into the film, because the real focus is something much more personal. When Cara set out to make “Blessed Child,” she originally wanted to profile second-generation adults who had left the church and those who are still part of it today. But she soon realized that the story she was meant to tell was a much more difficult one, and it would involve shining a spotlight on her parents, who have given decades of their lives to the church and are still members to this day. Cara’s father, Farley Jones, has been so entrenched in the Unification Church that at one point he was its president. In an emotional scene, he explains that he saw Moon as a father figure, a role that had been missing in his life after his own father walked out. This is where the line between family and church begins to blur.
“It would have been so much easier to create a film about the church and leave my family out of it,” Cara admits. “I had to confront my parents' continued faith and involvement in the church despite the ways it hurt me. I spent years wrestling with what felt like a choice between telling my truth and potentially losing my parents.”
But she knew she had to tell her truth, even if it would be emotionally challenging and even terrifying at times. At least she had her brother Bow beside her. In addition to working on the film as a cameraman and cinematographer, Bow was also significantly impacted by the church. As a gay man, Bow spent his formative years in an organization that espoused strong homophobic beliefs. In the film, he recounts a disturbing memory of Reverend Moon’s oldest son announcing that he would line up “all the homosexuals and shoot them.”
Just as she grappled with the fear of losing her parents when she divorced her husband and stopped attending services, Cara was nervous that the film would further compromise her relationship with them. “Because we were so close growing up, I lived much of my life believing that if we didn’t believe the same things we would never be that close again.”
Then something miraculous happened.
By confronting these unresolved tensions within her family, Cara was able to tell a story that only she could tell, and by opening old wounds she and her family have been able to heal them. “Many people experience a kind of catharsis in telling their stories. For me, the healing part of making this film hasn’t been so much about sharing all the details, but the honesty that has been cultivated with my parents that wasn’t there before,” a kind of honesty that “feels more real than the bond of faith we once shared,” she reveals
And that’s not all. Since the film’s original release, many others have come forward with their own stories of familial healing. “I’ve been heartened by stories of parents and children who, despite also sharing different beliefs, have watched the film together and been able to sit through the discomfort of conversations they wouldn’t have otherwise had,” Cara says.
There’s also a deliberate reason why the film is not a flat-out critique of the church, and any mention of the indoctrination process, specific teachings, and tax fraud indictments are only meant to provide context. Because—believe it or not—Cara learned a lot of positive lessons from growing up a Moonie. Though she vehemently denounces its teachings on homosexuality and the “toxic” spiritual hierarchy that appoints the Moons as messiahs, she also credits the church for teaching her racial and cultural understanding. From an early age, she was taught that “deep interpersonal relationships across difference can be the foundation of cultural and societal change.” To her, this lesson feels especially significant after this last year of racial reckoning.
Ultimately, “Blessed Child” is not so much a cult movie about leaving as it is about holding on. Cara’s real liberation is feeling safe enough to return to the church, as an observer, and learning which parts of it she can keep in her life—the happy memories, the wildly diverse experiences the church has afforded her, and, of course, her family. Does the cult aspect fade away completely? Not exactly, but that’s OK. “What is family, after all, but our very own cult, where we take on the beliefs of the people we love?”