Groomed


Gwen van de Pas listens to the point of view of a sexual predator.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Gwen van de Pas, Harriet Hofstode, Laurens, Oprah Winfrey, Andy Hudlak, Jim Tanner, Martijn Larsen, Raimondo, Nicole, Katy, Barbi, Asia, Keith, Dennis. Directed by Gwen van de Pas

 

When a sexual predator chooses a child to abuse, it isn’t a random choice. It is a matter of careful selection, picking someone who is vulnerable. He (for most sexual predators of children are male, although there are some women who follow the same pattern) will befriend them, buy them presents and make them feel special. He will win the trust of their family, who feel comfortable with the presence of an adult in their child’s life as a mentor or an authority figure or even a family member. When the selected child has been properly groomed, the attention grows physical.

For Gwen van de Pas, now a filmmaker living in San Francisco, her groomer was the assistant coach on the swim team that she participated. For the most part, her childhood in the Netherlands was idyllic; a loving family, a safe neighborhood, but she was bullied at school. She was unusually shy, making it hard for her to make friends. This set her up perfectly for her abuser.

She was eleven when she met her abuser and the abuse turned sexual not long after that, and lasted until she was fifteen. For the most part, because she felt the sex was consensual, she didn’t think twice about it. It was only when she and her boyfriend Laurens were discussing the possibility of having a family that she began to have nightmares about the abuse. She began to see a psychologist, Harriet Hofstode.

Deciding she needed to confront her past, she also wanted to tell her story through the medium she had studied and practiced; film. She assembled a team and talked to experts on psychology and sexual predators who taught her a word she wasn’t familiar with: grooming. She began to realize that this was exactly what happened to her.

She goes home to the Netherlands and discusses the event with her parents, with whom she had only talked about it once before. At the time, they had dissuaded her from going to the authorities; her mother explained by way of explanation that she was in a fragile emotional state and was talking about suicide. They were concerned that the process of investigation and trial might push her over the edge. In retrospect, her parents wondered if they had done the wrong thing, putting off dealing with the trauma and allowing their daughter’s suffering to last longer.

Gwen also speaks with other victims, both male and female, identified only with first names; one, abused by her own father. One, by a minister. One, by a priest. She also talked with a convicted but repentant sexual predator who gave her a predator’s eye-view. These interviews seem to be cathartic for all involved.

It is Gwen’s story that is the most personal and emotional. At times, we see Gwen, her father and her boyfriend break down as they relive the horrors of her past and the repercussions of those events. She also re-reads the letters sent by her abuser with an adult eye, getting physically sick as she realizes how she was taken in.

At first, she is sympathetic to the man who abused her as a “wounded soul,” and is loathe to ruin his life but as she discovers more about her abuse – and her abuser – her attitude changes and she realizes that these sorts of predators rarely stop at one victim.

This is a harrowing but important documentary that is raw emotionally and at times very difficult to watch – even if you haven’t been the victim of sexual abuse. Een in that case, you may want to have a hankie at the ready unless you are emotionally insulated to the point of being robotic. If you have a history of being abused, be aware that this might trigger something in you, and for those who have blotted out memories of childhood abuse this might bring them savagely back. You may want to have someone with you as a means of support if you choose to watch this.

I can’t help thinking/admiring the sheer bravery of Van de Pas. This certainly wasn’t easy for her and there are times when her raw emotion is overwhelming; at other times she is forced to comfort her father, who feels guilt at not having protected his baby girl. Those are moments that will stay with you forever, as well they should.

But you should watch this, particularly if you’re a parent or plan to be. Van de Pas is very methodical going through the warning signs and steps of grooming, and what you learn here might save your child, or someone near to you. Perhaps you might recognize the behavior of grooming in yourself, in which case you should seek help from a mental health professional immediately. Whatever your situation might be, this is an extraordinarily important documentary that just might save someone’s life and/or sanity down the road. That life might well be your own – or someone you love.

REASONS TO SEE: Emotionally powerful and wrenching. Important information for parents and teens alike. Van de Pas is unbelievably brave. Her confusion and anger are understandable and normal. Helps understand victim self-blaming.
REASONS TO AVOID: May trigger those who have been through childhood sexual abuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There are strong adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in ten people have been sexually abused. 80% of them knew their attacker beforehand; nearly 100% of them went through the grooming process with their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunting Ground
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Godzilla vs. Kong

Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad


The Hargrove family makes preparations for the unthinkable.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Susan Hargrove, Geddie Hargrove, Tom Hargrove, Miles Hargrove, Oscar Tejada, Claudia Greiner, Robert Clarx, Uli Greiner, David Little, Raford Hargrove, Peter Greiner, David Parkinson. Directed by Miles Hargrove

 

In the 90s, kidnappings by political, terrorist and guerilla groups and drug cartels reached epidemic proportions. So much so that a cottage industry sprang up around expert negotiators, and men dedicated to acting as liaisons between the kidnappers and the families of their victims. It was a nightmare scenario for anyone working abroad.

For the Hargrove family, it was a nightmare that became all too real. In 1994, the family – which had been all over the world for father Tom Hargrove’s job, had moved to Cali, Colombia where drug cartels were in the midst of a bloody war and where antigovernmental guerillas were terrorizing the populace almost as much as government soldiers were. Tom worked as an agricultural advisor, introducing new types of farming techniques and crops to help reduce starvation and make farming more productive in the reason. While Tom was in Vietnam during the war, the Viet Cong had targeted him but when they discovered that he was bringing new types of rice that would yield more in the region, he was left alone. Tom figured that this would protect him, that he was there to help the people who were in dire need of it, although kidnappings were common in the region.

He thought wrong. At what appeared to be a routine police check point on his way to work one morning, he was removed from his car by armed guerillas from FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist group that aimed to overthrow the government and stop drug-related violence in the region. His wife, Susan, was alone in Colombia; her sons Geddie and Miles were both away at college but they both rushed to Cali to be by her side. Her German neighbors, Uli and Claudia Greiner and their son Peter, also provided support as did Tom’s brother Raford, who came in from Texas to lend a hand. They also hired former federal agent Oscar Tejada as their advisor to help them navigate the minefield that was negotiating with the kidnappers.

Miles had become obsessed with a new camcorder that he had gotten, much to the dismay of his father who was a little weary of being constantly filmed by his son. He documented the ordeal from the point of view of the family, from the major events – phone calls from the guerillas, strategy sessions, the setting up of secure phone lines so that nobody could listen in, and the ransom drops, which were tense affairs as the sums of money were always at risk for being confiscated by corrupt police – and family dinners, little bits of life as the family tried to somehow cope with the unbelievable stress of not knowing whether Tom was alive or not and if he would be returned alive once all was said and done. They grimly watch footage of kidnap victims being discovered machine-gunned by their kidnappers after the ransom was paid.

The footage is almost exclusively from Miles’ camcorder and so the quality is often poor, which might give some pause, but that would be a mistake. Some of the film plays almost like a spy thriller, with a sequence of the family trying to pay the ransom harrowing as they are followed by parties unknown – is it someone from the police or from the kidnappers? – plus they go for weeks and even months without hearing from the kidnappers, whose mountain location is imperiled by government forces seeking to eradicate them. The underlying worry was that Tom might be executed by the guerillas as the government made their situation untenable, or be caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between the kidnappers and the army.

There are also interviews with some of the principles including mom Susan, the neighbors Uli and Claudia Greiner, Oscar Tejada and Geddie and Miles Hargrove that were conducted twenty years after the fact. Tom also kept an illicit diary he kept hidden in his money belt during the long ordeal and we are shown excerpts of that as well, some of which is almost impossible to read.

If you’re looking for great emotional releases, you won’t find many here; the family manage to keep control of their emotions admirably considering the circumstances. The ever-present eye of the camera give us an unflinching inside look at what the family went through that is both intimate and compelling. My only gripe is that Miles has a tendency to push the mundane aspects a little harder than he needed to which pads the running time a bit more than was necessary, but this is true crime done as perfectly as it can be.

REASONS TO SEE: An incredible, personal story. Plays like a crime thriller – except it’s a documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the home video footage feels extraneous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie Proof of Life is based on this incident.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Proof of Life
,FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Donny’s Bar Mitzvah

The Walrus and the Whistleblower


Phil Demers is at the center of the protest.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Phil Demers, Doug Draper, Ted Satci, John Holer, Michael Noonen, Catherine Ens-Hurwood, Carolyn Narononni, Naomi Rose, Brendan Kelly, Angela Bontivagna, Ron Bucholz, Holly Lake, Murray Sinclair, Elizabeth May. Directed by Nathalie Bibeau

Before we go any further, I should tell you that I’ve never understood the appeal of watching trained animals perform. I’m not really big on zoos, although I am all for interacting with animals in a safe environment for both humans and the animals themselves. I have no problem with teaching children the wonders of the animal kingdom and the importance of respecting other species different than our own. So when I have the opportunity to go to marine parks where trained dolphins and killer whales perform for a stadium full of spectators, I am not terribly enthusiastic about attending. However, I realize that a lot of people feel differently than I do on the subject.

Marineland, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, has been showcasing performing dolphins, killer whales and other marine mammals since opening its doors in 1961. It is the largest employer in the area which has little other industry besides tourism. In 2000, they brought in walruses and trainer Phil Demers developed a special relationship with Smooshi – so named because she had a habit of smooshing up against his face – who imprinted on him, which to be honest I’m not sure whether or not that is unusual since that’s one of many avenues that the film never explores (this gets to be a theme throughout the movie and is its greatest drawback). The two were inseparable.

However, Demers was disturbed at the way the animals in general were treated at the park – a recurring litany that has dogged Marineland for decades. When a type of algae starting growing in the water that was harmful to the animals, they responded by using chlorine to kill it which in turn caused painful chemical burns that eventually no amount of drugs could soothe. When Demers discovered the tragic and torturous route Smooshi (and the other walruses that Marineland eventually added to the show) took in being purchased for the park, Demers finally resigned his job. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

He became an animal rights activist, picketing Marineland and taking on the Twitter handle WalrusWhisperer to bring the plight of the animals to the attention of the general public. He would be barred from the grounds of Marineland and later a large lawsuit was brought on by the marie park against him. In the meantime, Canada began to take up legislation to ban the keeping of certain marine mammals (but ironically, not walruses) from marine parks and aquariums. It is an uphill battle and Demers is basically a bearded David facing an unforgiving and vengeful Goliath but he soldiers on.

The movie takes a lot of its cues from Blackfish although its focus is on a specific incident even more so than Blackfish, which broadened its scope to look at animal abuse in marine parks globally. The laser-like focus here is on Marineland and its owner John Holer (who passed away during film, an event that caused mixed reactions in Demers) to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps with the wider focus of the other film, Bibeau might have felt she didn’t need to expand her view, but basically honed in on Demers’ story and while it is an admirable one, it could have used further context. The only negativity that comes in was that some of his fellow activists are frustrated with him because he refuses to embrace veganism, and what criticism is leveled at Demers is largely leveled by himself – “I sound like an asshole. I look like an asshole. I know the vein in my forehead is bulging,” he admits in a moment of self-examination.

The importance of the subject is unquestioned and the fact that in the years since Blackfish was released it appears that there hasn’t been a ton of change in the policies regarding the way marine parks treat the animals in their care is something that at least deserves mention, but it never is. Also Demers proclaims that he doesn’t want to win money out of all of this; he just wants Smooshi, but to what end? Releasing her back into the wild would be impractical at best and deadly at worst; she’s lived her entire life in captivity and doesn’t have the skills to survive in the wild. So where would Demers keep her? There doesn’t appear to be much room in his house for her, and the bill for feeding a walrus would be appalling. But whatever plans Demers has for the care of Smooshi once released from the park are never elaborated on.

And that’s really symbolic for the movie as a whole; I don’t think Bibeau had much of a plan in assembling this film. Certainly it is an important story, and certainly it means a lot to her personally (see Trivial Pursuits below) but it feels like she didn’t really want to make much effort to dot her I’s and cross her T’s and this is a film that could badly use both, even if the story is compelling.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating David vs. Goliath story. The footage of Smooshi and Demers being separated is absolutely heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leaves too many important questions unexplored.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some drug use and disturbing images of animal cruelty.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bibeau knew of Demers because he was her brother’s best friend growing up.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Discovery Plus, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blackfish
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Come True