It’s perhaps too spot-on that Los Angeles’ own Ukrainian Cultural Center also functions as a theater, with a big stage and grand Art Deco features nestled inside and outside of it. After all, I am here for some theatrics, but not the kind that take place on a stage or even on a screen – but the kind that require participation and collusion and even a healthy slice of delusion, even as they also beg for stories and plots and costumes. I am not here for a movie or a concert or a reading.
I am here to join a cult.
I have been tracking Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling‘s Sound of My Voice since it first debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. After missing the film at both 2011’s Sundance and SXSW, I’ve been eagerly awaiting its theatrical release. The film follows a couple who attempt to infiltrate a cult in order to prove them to be liars and fakes. Having still (still! cruelly still!) not seen the film, I can’t report on their results (and, even if I could, I wouldn’t). After all, what’s more mysterious than cult, with a leader purported to be a time traveler? Was that too much?
I’ve come to the Ukrainian Culture Center on a Thursday evening at 7PM because ComingSoon’s Silas Lesnick went last week and, after he asked me to join him for the next meeting, I wasn’t sure I could say no – after all, was he given some sort of required recruitment number? I’ve resisted watching trailers and the first 12 minutes of the film, but I couldn’t resist this chance.
There are just four of us – myself, Silas, follower Joanne, and second-in-command Klaus. If Klaus is dismayed by the small turnout, he doesn’t show it, and he greets both of us warmly – clasping my hands longer than most people would do normally. We start with breathing exercises, the four of us forming a square, closing our eyes, and inhaling and exhaling deeply. After that fairly restful exercise, we turn away from each other to “fire breathe” – puffing out big, loud exhales for a minute. Klaus then asks us to stare at the person across from us and, as we stare, he tells us that this is something most people would find uncomfortable (well, duh), but that we must persevere through that discomfort, to keep looking. Klaus briefly quizzes us on the the looks of the other person with our eyes closed (what color are their eyes? do they have bangs? can you see their ears?), seemingly pleased with both of our powers of observation.
Then? Well, then we dance like, as they say, nobody is watching. Dancing turns to turning and fast-walking and trying to not bump into each other in the tiny space, enough movement that we’re all a bit red-faced and out of breath when Klaus tells us to stop. He hopes we’ve worked up a sweat, because physical activity and health is one of the keys we’ll need to survive when whatever he thinks (and Maggie says) will happen to the world happens.
After we pause, Klaus and Joanne lead us to a tiny room with a tiny table, where we sit and begin talking.
Joanne declares that she feels I am very pure, and have come with the right intentions. It’s convincing enough that I temporarily forget that my intentions are not pure. What follows is Klaus speaking to us slowly, explaining a bit about himself and more about their leader, Maggie. What we learn about Maggie is that Klaus and her followers believe her to be a time traveler – one that Klaus had searched for and eventually found wandering the streets. While she did not remember much of her life, two tattoos – one of an anchor (the symbol of time travelers, Klaus says) and one of the number “54” (the year where she has traveled from) – identify her as such. With Klaus’s help, she has been nurtured back to health, or as much as Maggie can be nurtured – we know she’s sick, we know she rarely leaves their compound, we know she is just plain not well. We know that she has taught Klaus much, and has shared what the future is like and how to prepare for it, but specifics are scarce. Klaus and Joanne do tell us that skills like crop-growing and first aid (and self-defense) are valued and important to survival. They ask us if we have skills like that – in a hushed voice, I profess a knack with plants and an ability to sew. They are pleased, but we don’t learn any more.
Klaus asks us to turn in our chairs and face each other for a pair of exercises that would, admittedly, be even stranger with someone I don’t know as well as I know Silas. We play a version of Hot Hands, hovering our hands above each other, feeling the heat, switching who is on top and who is on bottom with our eyes closed and without talking the other through it. Klaus pulls up Silas’s hands and asks me if I can still feel the heat, and is pleased when I tell him I don’t, even with my eyes closed, I know what he’s doing and I immediately understand the emphasis that Maggie and her followers place on the tactile and the touchable.
Which is why it’s not entirely surprising when Joanne asks to lead us through another exercise, still facing each other, still with our eyes closed – she wants us to touch each other’s faces, to map them out with our hands as if we were blind, as if we could forget what we know the other looks like. It’s an intimate experience, and a bit silly, but strangely absorbing (that intimate, silly, absorbing trifecta also explains the entire experience, as it were). It’s lucky that Silas has such a kind face that I know so well, as I suspect that otherwise, I’d be totally freaked out. After Klaus tells us we can stop, he then explains that what we’ve just done is what Maggie does when she’s meeting people. She feels them physically through their face, and also more than just physically – Klaus doesn’t say “emotionally” or “spiritually,” but that’s clearly the thrust of what he’s getting at.
Klaus ends by calling for questions, but we’re both a bit too stunned to formulate much. The journalist in me wants to ask more about Maggie, but the secrecy that Klaus and Joanne have already cloaked her in feels like too much, and I’m suddenly very worried about offending them in some way. If the ultimate promise of these sessions is some sort of induction and meeting Maggie on her own terms, it appears that I just might need to return the following week.
Sound of My Voice opens on April 27. You can learn just a bit more about Maggie and her group at the 4 Twenty-Seven 12 site.