Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Tribeca ’16: Enlighten Us

In a way, it is all Oprah Winfrey’s fault. For the kids out there, she was once a prominent daytime talk show host who has since fallen into obscurity. James Arthur Ray was one of several New Age self-helpy gurus she anointed on her show. Her seal of approval launched his motivational speaking business to a higher level. Unfortunately, the exclusive retreat he offered diehard devotees of his half-baked spirituality included a fake Native American sweat lodge. Three of the faithful who followed Ray inside would die inside the stifling death trap. Obviously, Ray is much more directly to blame for the resulting tragedy, but the sincerity of his contrition seems to be open to interpretation, at least judging from Jenny Carchman’s Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray, which screens during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

James Arthur Ray was found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide by a jury of his peers. As the doc begins, a chastened Ray has just been released into an uncertain world. Ray preached a combination of prosperity gospel and New Age self-fulfillment using his own success as his own best case study. Obviously, he will need to revise the script now that he is a bankrupt parolee.

Initially, Ray says all the right things. He takes responsibility and eats humble pie. However, in retrospect, viewers will realize they never see him reach out to families of the victims. Just as Ray starts his Lazarus-like return to the speaking circuit, Carchman flashes back, giving viewers a tick-tock analysis of the tragedy in Sedona—and it is absolutely devastating. Anyone who watches the second half of Enlighten Us would most likely vote to uphold Ray’s conviction and possibly void his parole.

So what to make of Ray? That is a tricky question. Carchman provides some helpful history and context of the self-help movement, explaining Ray’s place in the hierarchy. Even though he never broke out to the extent of other Oprah favorites, he had become a cottage industry unto himself. He even had a pyramid for his followers to work their way up, much like Scientology.

Carchman’s approach is even-handed enough to give viewers grist to consider him a veritable David Koresh or Ralph Waldo Emerson, depending on their inclinations. However, the fact that the controversy surrounding his exclusive first post-prison interview with Piers Morgan (who was allegedly managed by Ray’s media advisor John Ferriter) is never acknowledged becomes especially awkward now that CNN Films have acquired Enlighten Us.

Even if Ray is not a sociopath, he seems to be a bit of a con artist, but that is true of the entire self-actualizing motivational field. If a program really works, you should only have to buy one book once. After a bit of googling, you will start to suspect Carchman lets Ray off easy, but at least the film ought to encourage relentless self-improving wisdom-seekers to approach each new guru with healthy skepticism. (They should also review the red flags identified by SEEK Safely, an organization formed in response to the Sweat Lodge deaths.) Recommended as a cautionary tale rather than an expose, Enlighten Us screens this Thursday (4/21) and Saturday (4/23), as part of this year’s Tribeca.