Television

The Vow’s Co-Creator on Why It Was Never Just a “Sex Cult” Documentary

The HBO miniseries started by chronicling what brought NXIVM down, but it ended by examining its appeal.

Keith Raniere in The Vow.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HBO.

The story of NXIVM was already tabloid fodder before Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer’s documentary miniseries The Vow came to HBO in August 2020. But the series’ deep dive into the psychology that led thousands of people to pledge their lives, and in some cases, their bodies, to leader Keith Raniere, captured pandemic-confined audiences like nothing this side of Tiger King. Where the series’ first nine episodes were largely structured around a group of former NXIVM members—including filmmaker Mark Vicente and Star Wars actress Bonnie Piesse—trying to expose Raniere in the press, its six-episode Part II is largely built around Raniere’s criminal trial. Given that Raniere’s fate is already a matter of history—in October 2020, he was sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking, racketeering, and possession of child pornography—the tension mainly comes from seeing how those who were still involved in NXIVM at the time of his arrest, especially his co-founder and right hand Nancy Salzman, will come to terms with what he’s done, and their own complicity in it.

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The Vow’s final episodes focus largely on the stories of Daniela and Camila, sisters in a family of five who all became NXIVM members. After grooming Daniela for two years beginning when she was 16, Raniere began a sexual relationship with her after her 18th birthday, and although he had multiple sexual partners within NXIVM, when she confessed an attraction to another man, he ordered her confined to a room for two years to heal what he called an “ethical breach.” Raniere began having sex with Camila when she was 15 and later compelled her to join DOS, an all-female “sex cult” within NXIVM whose members branded Raniere’s initials on their bodies to signify their lifelong loyalty to him.

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Noujaim, who directed most of Part II’s episodes herself, understands something of NXIVM’s appeal: She attended a five-day seminar for Raniere’s Executive Success Programs in 2006, which is when she met many of the people who would become The Vow’s characters. But she also understands the misuse of power, which has been the subject of many of her documentaries, including The Square, about the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and, with Amer (who’s also her husband), The Great Hack, about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. A few days before the finale aired, Noujaim talked to Slate about shifting focus from those who tried to bring down Keith Raniere to those who were with him until the end, how to interview a cult member without spreading propaganda, and why, for her, this was never a “sex cult” story. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Sam Adams: At what point in making Part I of The Vow did you start to have a sense of how Part II would go?

Jehane Noujaim: I come from a tradition of cinéma vérité. So our hope was to follow this story in an unfolding way. When we started, it was a very small project about a couple, Bonnie and Mark, and Mark was being pulled between his girlfriend, the present-day reality that he was dealing with, versus the dream that Keith represented to him and everything that he could possibly be. What do you do when your boyfriend’s stuck in this situation, right?

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Then it just kind of grew and grew, and we followed it. We had no idea whether Keith was going to be arrested. We had no idea whether there’d be a trial. We had no idea about the branding. We had no idea about the fact that somebody had been [confined] in a room. Mark and Bonnie and Sarah and Nippy did not know about what had happened with Camila and Daniela, or any of the information or the details of the extent of the sexual abuse that came out during the trial.

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And we wanted to have access to people’s opinions from all different sides. We had been writing to people from the very beginning, trying to have meetings and get access to people of very different persuasions. At a certain point, we started to get more access, and it was just a question of where the dividing line would be. And because the trial kept getting pushed, we thought that the best dividing line between Part I and Part II would be after Keith gets arrested, and before the legal proceedings start.

In plot terms, Part I leads up to Keith’s arrest and Part II encompasses his trial. But for me the real divider is that in the first part, you’re dealing mainly with people who have chosen to get out of NXIVM, and in the second you’re focusing more on the ones who stayed till the end—and in some cases, still support Keith. You go from the defectors to the diehards. 

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Yeah, that’s right. And, of course, we didn’t know what side of the line many people would fall on. Karen Unterreiner was somebody who was very loyal to Keith, pled the Fifth, and then, at a certain point, when they had the grand jury, there were a number of people that ended up changing their perspective. When we started following the people who are still loyal to Keith, we didn’t know if there would be certain information that would come out that would change their opinion.

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At the end of Part I, you tease Part II with a shot of Nancy Salzman in front of the camera, and she really becomes the central character of the final six episodes. When did you make that call? 

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We felt like there were two spines to the story of Part II. One was the trial, and the other was Nancy’s understanding of what she had become involved with, and that also had its own arc. I had been writing to Nancy from the very beginning, but it wasn’t until the lawyers and the defendants started to meet in court that I could actually approach her in person, in the courtroom. She said, “Wait, you want to interview or follow me? Aren’t you a really good friend of Mark Vicente’s—basically the guy responsible for me sitting in court right now?” I said, “Yes, I am. But I also did take part of the curriculum. I do come to this as somebody who really wants to understand it.” Many people came to this story as a sex cult story, once that very salacious information came out. I was much more interested in the vulnerability of the mind.

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So we met, I spoke with her for probably about nine months, her and her lawyers, before we agreed to sit down. And the stipulation of her sitting down was that nothing would be released before her sentencing, which I thought was quite a good agreement for us as well, because it allowed her to be more open about her experience without fear of repercussion.

Nancy is such a complicated character. It’s open to question whether or what she knew about DOS, for example—Sarah and Mark certainly believe she must have known something—but at the very least we see her helping to build this incredibly toxic culture in which abuse essentially can’t exist. If you’re “at cause” and something bad happens to you, it’s your fault. Being dedicated to vérité techniques, were you able to push her to come to terms with what she did? Or was your role to be present and let the trial do that for you?

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It was a bit of both. It was following her as she was beginning to understand more information about what she had been a part of. But our agreement at the very beginning was, if we’re going to do this, then I want to be able to ask the most difficult questions and go to the most sensitive places to fully understand why a woman who spent 20 years working in chronic pain, saying that she wanted to help people, would end up in a situation like this. And so, I think my role was both to bear witness, and also as different questions came up in the trial, to really bring those questions that came up in the trial to her, because she never took the stand, and we never heard from her.

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My view of what she knew and didn’t know changed. And I wanted to understand from other people what they felt. Vero told me this story, which is actually not in the final cut, but it was at one point. Vero, who’s in Episode 4 [of Part II] said she went to Keith and said, “I have a lot of questions about absolute obedience, and I want to be able to talk with somebody about it. Can I talk with Nancy or Karen about it? Because I feel like these are women who must be a part of this. This is your new creation, and all the most loyal, most dedicated women are being a part of it.” And Keith said, “No, they’re not a part of it. You can’t speak with them about it, and they wouldn’t understand.”

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So that gave me more comfort in giving her viewpoint. I knew that I wasn’t giving a viewpoint that was false. Right? Are there places where Nancy still had not, in the process of filming her, come to terms with what the curriculum had done to people? Absolutely. And in the letters that I have gotten from her since prison, she’s even further along in her process, I would say, in terms of understanding what she was part of. But it’s a long process.

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That’s what’s so powerful about the moment at the very end when Nancy reads back her sentence. She’s overtly expressing outrage that the judge doesn’t believe her protestations of innocence, and essentially accuses her of pushing her own daughter into Keith’s clutches to advance her career. But the way she sobs after that suggests she might actually be allowing herself to consider, for the first time, that it might be true.

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I think it goes back to the reason she participated, which is the world has this view of you that you know isn’t you. And then when you come full circle to the end, you see that she is still grappling with how people see her the way that they do, including the judge, when she sees herself so differently.

Nancy does eventually seem to reckon with what Keith has done and who he is, largely because of the testimony by Daniela and Camila, which also played a critical role in the trial. But then you have what ends up being called the “NXIVM Five,” who are still standing by Keith after all of it and don’t seem to have any doubts at all. As a non-interventionist filmmaker, how do you deal with subjects like that? It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into their state of mind, but at a certain point, they’re just reciting pro-Keith propaganda. How do you prevent them from running away with your TV series?

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That’s a very good question, and I think it is one of the trickiest balances to find. You hear Moira [Penza, the federal prosecutor,] say, “This is a sideshow,” and you’re being pulled into the sideshow, right? Sarah Edmondson was telling me yesterday these are content issues, and you can’t focus on the content issues, because you’ll be derailed from thinking about the larger story. You don’t know, when you start, whether any of the NXIVM Five will have a change of perspective themselves. And so there’s a part of you that wants to follow that process of whether that happens. That’s fascinating, because these are people who very strongly believe in Keith’s innocence, and that he has been unjustly treated.

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One of the issues they wanted us to cover was that they believe that there has been [prosecutorial misconduct]—and I hesitate to talk with you about it, because is that giving a platform to this? But we felt like we could film them speaking with the press about it. They were already on some major news networks speaking about it to the press, so in that way, we felt like this is not giving a platform, this is exploring what they’re going through, right? Everybody has a right to their opinion, but everybody doesn’t have the right to their own set of facts.

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In the third episode of Part II, you focus on NXIVM’s claims that they’ve essentially been able to use their techniques to cure Tourette syndrome, including testimonies from people who seem to have been cured, although it’s all scientifically unproven. It doesn’t really fit with a vérité approach, but did you consider bringing medical experts to evaluate what they’re saying?

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We did think about bringing in expert voices, and we spoke with a number of experts in the process of making this. But we felt like we were making a vérité film about an unfolding story. We’re bearing witness. When you start filming a story like this, you often don’t know what’s right and wrong when you begin. You’re filming events as they’re unfolding far before any discovery comes out. In the case of Tourette’s, I felt the medical board determines who could go to jail and what’s right and wrong. I think the more important question that we were looking at is that we were looking at this ecosystem of manipulation, and there’s the desire to make these very clear lines between the bad people and the good people. We needed to understand why somebody like Isabella’s parents, knowing that the organization was seriously problematic, would ever want to put their daughter in a situation like this. And it was because they were seeing those results. There were many people that felt like they got great benefits out of it, and there were many people that felt that they were damaged by it.

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My sister, for example, has a hearing loss, and she will say to me that she would never go for cochlear implants, because she believes that her hearing loss is part of what makes her who she is. I would say that Isabella, at this point, would say that the Tourette’s was something that made her who she was, and she lost her ability to do art. She had to very much control herself, and push away feelings that made her who she was, repress them. And that was something that she decided, in the end, she didn’t want. Others, like Marc Elliot, decided that that was what he did want.

Our hope was really to show the dilemma, because that was actually the conversation that was going on in NXIVM and ESP all the time as it was breaking down, which is, “Well, I benefited from this course or that course, and so just because Keith manipulated and abused people, am I supposed to throw the baby out with the bathwater?” And we felt like that Tourette’s episode really brought, in a very clear way, those questions forward.

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It goes back in a way to the very first episode of the series, where Sarah is talking about how much ESP changed her life for the better. If you stopped watching halfway through, you might get the sense this was just a wonderful place that did great things for people. But you do have to address why people came, and why some of them stayed.

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We had a panel discussion last night, and Sarah said, “People need to understand what was so attractive about it. Otherwise everybody looks like idiots. Why would we ever have signed up for something like this? And the reality was that we felt like we were at the cutting edge of something.”

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Another question that comes back again and again is: Why on earth is there so much material? It’s not just video of Keith’s presentations, but Allison Mack time-stamping an audio recording of her and Keith developing the branding ceremony for DOS. It’s like that line from The Wire: Are you taking notes on a criminal conspiracy? Did you understand the mindset there, or are you just grateful to have so much to work with?

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I think Mark felt like he was documenting for his film. Then there was another guy named Alessandro that filmed for the Tourette’s film [My Tourette’s], which came out [in 2018]. So there were a number of people doing different projects, but also people were recording all of the time because they felt like they were in self-improvement school, right? Your moments with Keith were supposed to be these very precious moments where you should take in everything that he’s saying, and be able to remember it and record it so that you can listen back to it. It was very much, “I’m learning about myself, I’m learning about the world, and I’m learning about it from the smartest man in the world.”

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I met some incredible people there [during the 2006 ESP seminar]. But the thing that made me feel the most uncomfortable was the adoration of Keith, and how unchecked his powers were, and the way that people spoke about him. Maybe that comes from coming from a place like Egypt, where we have pictures of our dictators all over the place, in the airports and on the streets. I know what that is, and it’s uncomfortable.

When did you decide that the story of Daniela and Camila was going to be the closing movement of the entire series?

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There were six weeks of very intense trials, so there was an incredible amount of footage there, incredible amount of story there to tell. But we felt like it was very important to make sure that we hit on the crimes that Keith had been convicted of. And Dani and Cami were two of the very important crimes. Dani’s story was fascinating, in that the room wasn’t locked. And so it really was the prison of the mind, and I think it is an unbelievable story. She is this very highly intelligent, as described by everybody that I spoke with about her, brilliant, brilliant woman. And she was in a battle with her own mind, and her own ethics. And she did not free herself until she got to the point where she just basically said, “Fuck it, what am I doing here?”

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The whole idea of an ethical breach becomes a form of indentured servitude. You will make up for this infraction, and I alone determine when I say you’ve made up for it, and I’m never going to say that.

It’s that Keith was the ultimate authority. It’s the story of the problem with absolute power.

The end of Part I suggests we’re going to hear from Keith while he’s in prison, but you don’t end up getting him on camera. Did you hope to have more of him?

I found Nancy a much more fascinating character than Keith, because she’s going through something, and she has the possibility of change, and she’s reconsidering and weighing and questioning. Keith, in all of our phone conversations, did not move one way or the other. And so in the end, I don’t think that what we were hoping for would’ve actually been something that would have been that rewarding. What we were trying to do with him was a sit-down interview, as we had done with everybody else. But we spoke with him for about a year, and we were never able to meet the conditions of a sit-down interview with him.

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What were the conditions of an interview with Keith?

Well, first, it was that we should talk with all of the people that supported him, and interview them. So we did meet that condition. Second, it was to make sure that we covered the affidavit. [Raniere’s supporters demanded prosecutors sign a document attesting they did not suborn perjury or tamper with evidence. The prosecutors declined.] And we did not satisfy that, because we don’t allow for anybody who’s involved in our projects, as either a funder or a character, to influence what we decide to show creatively. I just remember it was a fascinating experience, because as you move into the third month and the fourth month and the fifth month into trying to negotiate, and the goal posts are moved, you start to understand how people that he works with get pulled further and further in. But I’m very satisfied with the amount of Keith that we have in it. I think that you get a very good sense of where he stands.

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