Written & Directed by: #LukeIbbetson
Luke Ibbetson’s 2019 mocumentary feature film Cult follows the fictional group F.A.T.E. (or Friends at the End) on their deranged but brightly funny journey towards the celebrated arrival of the “June Comet”, which they believe will lead them forward into an extra-terrestrial afterlife and leave the world behind them in flames. Told in a traditional documentary style, with a director/narrator and a crew of three, Cult becomes a window into the lives of these dozen-or-so F.A.T.E. members; exploring what led them to this odd calling (be it vice or mental-illness) and in turn examining the frightening reality of non-fictional cult societies that continue to permeate communities in the real world.
In substance the film largely resembles Taika Waititi’s ground-breaking mocumentary What we do in the Shadows (the original film version), with the documentary-form never deviating from anything other than ultra-realistic, contrasted perfectly by the obscenely far-fetched content. However, where Shadows focused on the fictional horrors of vampires in modern-day New Zealand, Cult instead hits a little too close to home with its depiction of not wholly unbelievable horrific events. This has both a positive and negative impact on the film: the faux-documentary style seems more truthful, but because of this it at times seems to take too-light an approach to dangerous subjects like manipulation and pact-suicides. In this way Cult can at times feel less like a comedy and more like Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) had it been directed by the aforementioned Waititi.
Made to resemble found-footage from twenty-years-ago, the cinematography is VHS-grainy, and limited to an academy aperture aspect ratio for the majority of the 120-minute runtime. With snappy and dynamically paced editing, the film retains a constantly growing tempo, as well as perfectly timed cuts adding to the already strong comedy. While some mocumentaries might be content to sit in the weird world they’ve created for the viewer, Ibbetson instead crafts what is a remarkably compelling narrative, while not taking anything away from the audience’s immersion into the F.A.T.E. “family”.
While performances may not always be overly inspired from the film’s varied cast, there nevertheless remains an unabashed honesty to the acting that can’t help but connect watchers to the fractured lives of these characters. This, paired with a slightly improvisational tone, cements the documentary style through its use of the film’s quirky but lovable ensemble.
Because of this Cult remains a fascinating, hilarious and darkly moving piece of experimental filmmaking, albeit one whose subject matter might overly make-light of a serious, and at times deadly manipulation of those too vulnerable to defend themselves.