Kate Logan’s probing documentary Kidnapped for Christ, airing this month on Showtime, was originally meant to be an evenhanded examination of Escuela Caribe, a Christian boarding school for troubled teens in the Dominican Republic. However, when she captured institutional abuses on camera, she was compelled to take action. As a filmmaker, she got involved in the personal struggle of David Wernsman, then a 17-year-old gay teen from Greeley, Colorado, whose parents sent him to Escuela Caribe in 2006 to “fix” him. Logan exposes David’s suffering and helplessness at the school in this disturbing film.
Now 25, but still haunted by the experience, David spoke with me for the San Francisco Bay Times about Kidnapped for Christ.
Gary M. Kramer: How did you get involved in the film?
David Wernsman: Kate (Logan) entered Escuela Caribe, as a senior from Biola University. She wanted to get the story of the students and she wanted to interview me. I took the risk of telling her why I was there.
GMK: Did you think Kate could rescue you?
DW: It was a leap of faith for me. It was amazing I was able to get a letter to Kate, because if a piece of paper was found in our pockets, a kid would get in huge trouble. I kept that letter (hidden) and was freaking out during my inspection. I thought it was worth the risk.
GMK: You talk about not being able to trust your parents in the film. What is your relationship with them like now?
DW: I quickly set the rules with my parents: this is who I am, take it or leave it. My relationship with my parents has grown tremendously since then. Discussing what the program did is difficult. I forgive them because they didn’t know what the school was doing. They were convinced by the (Escuela Caribe) people that they were doing the right thing. There is some guilt, but the parents are victims along with the students themselves.
GMK: How did you grapple with the rules of the school?
DW: I kept my Ps and Qs. I knew that by not following the rules, things would get hard. A student learns to comply—go numb, and into this mindset: “whatever they tell me.” You become emotionless, and that’s the goal for “troubled teens” who have a history of “acting out”—being gay, having anger problems, anxiety, etc. Being “robotic” people is the transformation. They would tell us they are breaking us down and building us up into the Christian way of thinking.
GMK: Did you have any contact with the other subjects in the film—Beth and Tia—during your time in Escuela Caribe, or after you left?
DW: We had monitored and scheduled times to talk, but I never communicated with Beth who was on “0 level” and not allowed to acknowledge the presence of boys. She couldn’t notice me, much less talk to me. Tia and I were allowed to set a break and talk one time during the day, but the staff didn’t like that so they told us we couldn’t talk to each other. I caught up with Tai this January, when we premiered at Slamdance (film festival), which was amazing.
GMK: There is a chant in the film, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” which seems paradoxical. Can you discuss this?
DW: I found it really ironic to use that Bible verse. I was very involved with the faith and the Bible before I came out, and it floors me how they would use the words of the Bible in the most incorrect way to justify everything they were doing.
GMK: Are you still faithful?
DW: I’m faithful and spiritual, but you won’t see me going into any church anytime soon.
GMK: What advice would you give to gay teens and/or other students that might face the situation you did?
DW: I would advise (parents) that sending a kid away is not the answer. If they do feel they need to do that for drugs, look up the facility and know what they do. If there is a kid acting out, the kid is likely not the root of the problem. But that’s the nature of relationships between parents and kids.
© 2014 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer