How The Vow’s directors went past the “sex cult” headlines to tell NXIVM’s deeper story
Keith Raniere, founder of NXIVM, in HBO’s The Vow. | HBO The season one finale was “a surprise to us,” say the documentary filmmakers. How does a successful, self-aware, well-adjusted person get sucked into a cult? And once they get out — if they even can — how do they live with themselves? Those are the questions that HBO’s documentary series The Vow seeks to tangle with, and it does not give easy answers. The show is a look into NXIVM, a “company” that provided self-improvement classes but also spiraled into something more, leading to the indictment of its founder and several members (including Smallville actor Allison Mack) for sex trafficking. A “secret society” for women, dubbed DOS, is at the center of the allegations, especially since news reports revealed that part of the group’s initiation involved branding the initials of the group’s leaders onto the women’s pelvic areas. The series primarily follows former NXIVM members Mark Vicente, Bonnie Piesse, Sarah Edmondson, and Anthony “Nippy” Ames, along with Catherine Oxenberg (whose daughter India Oxenberg was in NXIVM), as they recount their experiences and grapple with their futures. On October 18, the nine-episode first season of The Vow concluded its run with a bang, with characters who had only been seen in video footage — like NXIVM leader Keith Raniere, who’s currently held in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center ahead of his October 27 sentencing hearing — finally talking directly to the filmmakers. A second season seemed imminent. And so a part two is, unsurprisingly, in the works. HBO announced just days before the finale that there would be another season of The Vow next year. It makes sense; with the court cases and verdicts happening as the show was airing, there seemed to be more to the story than what the first season covered. HBO Sarah Edmondson, one of the subjects of The Vow, in footage from the series. Curious about what comes next and the mechanics of making a series like this, I spoke with the series’ directors, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. Nominated for an Oscar for their 2013 film The Square, the pair have made it a habit to explore the ways people become committed to ideas and then to radical action, whether it’s the Egyptian Revolution in The Square or American political action in last year’s The Great Hack. We spoke by phone the day after the series finale aired about their goals in making The Vow, Noujaim’s own involvement with NXIVM, and how the pair’s backgrounds as Egyptian Americans prepared them for this work. Our conversation follows, lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Alissa Wilkinson Going into the project, did you have a sense of how it was going to end? Or were you flying blind? Jehane Noujaim Absolutely flying blind. And that’s how we make our films. That’s what’s exciting about making a vérité film — we follow the story as it unfolds. Often, you imagine where it might go, but you really don’t know. So you’re learning things as the characters are learning things, as the subjects. Our job is to follow as closely as possible. This story started as a very personal story about a crisis of faith that my friend Mark Vicente was having in his relationship with [his wife] Bonnie Piesse. And then it just blew up, and we hung on for the ride. We were following the story before the New York Times, before anyone knew about it. We had just found out about the branding. I had just finished a class [with NXIVM]; I had taken ESP [Executive Success Program, a NXIVM foundational course] in 2010, and I had tried to make a film about the organization at that point in time. I spoke to all of the leadership at that time, but I couldn’t get the kind of access that I needed to get multiple perspectives on things. Soon after that, I went back to Egypt, and the Egyptian Revolution started. So, I made The Square with my husband Karim. I met Karim during the Egyptian Revolution. I was jailed at that time. So, I was living a completely different life. [But I] got out. We then got married. Got nominated for an Oscar, got married, had three kids, and moved to LA. I always wanted to finish the ESP class, because I never finished it. Mark Vicente said that there was a class happening in Venice, [California,] which was a couple minutes away from my house. So I finished the class this time, and had a party at my house [for my classmates]. I invited Mark, and Mark didn’t show up, and didn’t return my texts or calls. I was very confused as to why because this was something that he had been trying to get me to do and he was so excited about me finishing, for such a long time. It just didn’t make any sense to me. And then, a couple of weeks later, he told me that he didn’t really understand what was going on, but that he had been hearing rumors of things [happening in NXIVM]. We started filming at that time. HBO Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson in The Vow. Alissa Wilkinson One thing that people sometimes question is whether a documentary has to be “objective,” or whether your involvement in the group, even at a fairly minimal level, actually enhances the filmmaking process and the final product. How do you think about that? Jehane Noujaim There is no way that I would have been able to build the kind of trust and access with people who were, in real time, questioning all the decisions they had made over the previous 10 years. They were questioning the trust that they had in themselves. The most important relationship that you have is the relationship with yourself. For people who are questioning themselves and feeling very vulnerable to allow you in in real time, as they’re going through it, is an incredible leap of faith. In order to do that, they have to trust the person filming, and trust their intentions. In this case, it was very important that the people I started filming with actually knew me, and knew I had taken the introductory class. A number of films about NXIVM entered production after the news came out because of that “sex cult” headline. When I started this, though, it was much more. It was a story about people’s crisis of faith and questioning what they believed. It was not a salacious story. My intention was, and still is, to understand how this all happened, rather than to flash another salacious story across the television set. But I know what you’re asking. Of course, having taken the classes, I have a perspective [on NXIVM]. I think it’s a good perspective to have — I took the classes with actors, doctors, lawyers, Ivy League graduates. I understood how enticing it was, and how much people got out of it. This is not just a sex cult story. It’s a story about our times. But to understand it journalistically, I think it’s very important to understand it from a number of different perspectives. I’ve always had the dream of making a Rashomon-type project. It’s a gift, it’s magic, when you’re able to do a project like this, where it has both journalistic and artistic integrity. Karim Amer I also think it’s the way you’ve made all your films. Like with The Square — we lived that story. Jehane Noujaim Right. Karim Amer We didn’t show up and say, “Hey, let’s go make a film.” We were protesters. We lived the story. For three years of our lives, we lived 50 feet from Tahrir Square. So this kind of vérité storytelling, which takes place as something unfolds, it’s very different from sitting people down and doing interviews with a range of people ... Jehane Noujaim After the fact. Karim Amer After the fact. That’s not to discredit that kind of filmmaking — the majority of documentaries are made that way — but that’s just not the style that we’ve ever embraced. So we work within the parameters of our form. Are we journalists? We do journalistic work, but we’re not journalists. We’re filmmakers, and we do journalistic work at times within our work. But we serve the story, and the story is about the characters. So, to us, it’s about honestly representing the emotional truth of the characters. That’s what we’re after. The characters give us insight into what it was like to be them in that period of time, for us to observe that, and come to our own perspectives. Some [audiences] love that, and some people want more of a traditional kind of explainer. That’s just not what we do, and we’ve never done it, on any film. With The Vow, it’s not about everything that happened to these characters in NXIVM. It’s only about them and their relationships, to make sense of NXIVM during this period of time. This isn’t a biography of Mark and Bonnie and Sarah [Edmondson] and Nippy [Ames]. Nor is it a biography of NXIVM. That’s just not what we do. Jehane Noujaim Since it’s a personal story, for this project, it was absolutely necessary that that one of us had taken the introductory class. Karim Amer Absolutely. It was very different for people to speak to us, because Jehane’s introduction to the world wasn’t seeing it as a sex cult. For years, NXIVMwas just a company that sold classes. It didn’t have that association. It’s very different to have a relationship with people in that world — before that headline and after. HBO Sarah Edmondson’s notebook from a NXIVM class, as seen in The Vow. Alissa Wilkinson Was there a point at which you wondered whether you should be part of the documentary, too? Jehane Noujaim Yes. A couple of editors on the project very much felt that I should be a part of the story, but I did not feel the story was about me. I had taken an introductory class, like 17,000 others had. But I never lived in Albany. I’d taken two weeks of classes. It wasn’t part of my life. But some of the subjects that we follow devoted decades of their lives. Everybody that we followed devoted at least seven years of their life. They had a much, much deeper understanding than I did. So I never felt that it would be the right thing to do to be a part of it. Alissa Wilkinson So, thinking about the finale episode, how much of what transpired was a surprise for you? Obviously Keith and the others knew, by the time you were working on the last few episodes, that the documentary was airing and you were making it. He called you. Did you anticipate any of this? Was there a point at which you thought, some of these people who weren’t talking to you might start talking to you? Karim Amer Our job as vérité filmmakers is to follow the story and where it takes us. So the trial was something that we knew we were [going to film]. I know it’s been framed in the media as, “Oh, HBO renews The Vow for Part Two.” But that’s kind of a media thing — that’s not what happened. We always knew it was going to be in two parts. The first part was about getting out [of NXIVM]. The second part was the trial. That was always the way it was going to be. We shot the trial story last summer, so that was something we’d been working on for a while, with HBO’s participation. They just announced it, recently. But now, we just continue to see where the story takes us. When people who are central to the story and have been talked about immensely throughout the story are potentially willing to speak, we have an obligation to hear from them. That process, of getting access to different participants, is a delicate and complicated one and has taken a lot of work with their legal teams to figure out the parameters of what’s accessible. But did we know what the ending of episode nine was? No, we always knew we were ending the end of this episode with the arrest. We just didn’t know what was going to happen right after. So that was a surprise to us, as well. Jehane Noujaim I believe that there is no way to tell this deeply complex, fascinating story without understanding it from a number of different people. So, from the beginning, I think it sounded crazy to many of my team that we would ultimately be able to sit down with various people. But I am the endless optimist, and so I did believe that we would ultimately sit down with NXIVM insiders. Karim Amer One thing to remember is that, because we are both Middle Eastern American, Egyptian American, and have lived between both cultures during the War on Terror, we have traversed people who have a weaponized, hostile relationship with each other, and have had to speak to all sides. We’ve had to hang out with Trump supporters and Islamists, you know what I mean? All my life. So being with different people who are diametrically opposed to one another, as uncomfortable as it is, is a space that we’ve had to embrace in our own identity as filmmakers of color who are immigrants and live between two worlds, East and West, that have been at war with each other for so many years now. I’ve had to tell my American friends that people in the Middle East who look like me don’t all want to kill them. And I’ve had to tell my Egyptian friends that people who are white and American don’t all want to bomb the Middle East for their oil. Those conversations are ones I’ve, unfortunately, grown up with. I know that seems weird for people who have not had to do such a thing. But it’s something that’s come with our life experience. And so, I think it’s allowed us to be open. David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim in February 2020. Jehane Noujaim Yes. My father’s last name is Noujaim, and he’s from Egypt. My mom’s maiden name is Watson. So as you can imagine, during the War on Terror, the Kuwait wars, in the Iraq War — I’ve sat at dinner tables in the Middle East and in the West, with people that I love dearly, who have completely different perspectives on what’s happening in the world. When you grow up with that from a very young age, you learn that the most important thing to do is to keep an open mind to different people’s truth — whatever that truth is. That’s our ultimate goal: to learn for ourselves, and to be able to share that learning and that understanding of the subject. Alissa Wilkinson I’ve seen people try to describe The Vow as an “exposé” on NXIVM, but it’s obviously not that — it’s about the people rather than the organization. But you also described it, Jehane, as a Rashomon-like project, which is fascinating. In Rashomon, the same story is told from different viewpoints in a way that calls the whole idea of “truth” into question. It makes us wonder if we can ever really understand the truth. Is that what this project really is about? What would you like people to come away with from watching The Vow? Jehane Noujaim This project is 10 years in the making, for me. And I think that what I hope people would get out of it has changed along the way. Karim Amer What do we want people to get out of it? It’s interesting for me, having made The Great Hack and The Vow — both companies, ESP and Cambridge Analytica, described themselves as behavior change companies. There have been so many skeptics about both stories. People were like, “Oh, what Cambridge Analytica did — that wouldn’t work on me. What happened with NXIVM — that wouldn’t work on me.” We like to think that we have this impenetrable psyche, that we’re in full control of everything we do. This story can make us pause and realize that our minds are a lot more vulnerable than we think they are. That vulnerability isn’t necessarily something that we should shun, and be cynical and close up, because that vulnerability is where we access our humanity. But at the same time, that vulnerability can be exploited and can be taken advantage of and can be compromised by another agent. That situation can happen to anybody. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. It doesn’t matter how you were raised. People like to say, “Oh, you have to have low self-esteem.” I asked all those people, “Do you wake up every morning with the same exact amount of self-esteem? If you do, let us know, because I haven’t met anybody who does.” If we know that our self-esteem fluctuates, then we know that our receptivity to certain ideas and norms, who we think we are and what we think we’re capable of, fluctuates as well. I hope this can inspire people to have radical empathy for each other. Especially in a time like now, where we’re in a once-in-a-century pandemic. We’re living in a time in American history where I don’t think Americans have been more scared of each other than we are right now. So that’s what I think, and hope. The first season of The Vow is available to stream on HBO and HBO Max. The second season is set to air on HBO in 2021. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. 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