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This Documentary Explores the Dark Truth of Exorcisms in Argentina


A woman lies across the floor of a small chapel. She convulses violently as she lets out a series of grunts and screams. Two men in religious garb stand directly above her; one of them holds a crucifix up to her face, the other recites prayers and commands. A small crowd of observers surround them, many of which are engaged in prayer.

One of the observers is Andrew Gold, a British journalist leading an investigation on the practice of exorcisms in Argentina. He stands out from the crowd of observers for a number of reasons: he is very tall, he is considerably younger than most of the people there, and he looks concerned. Arms crossed, furrowed brow, and a facial expression alternating between detached bemusement and genuine worry set him apart from the group of loyal followers of Padre Obispo Manuel Acuña, the man leading the exorcism.

And despite Gold’s evident discomfort and skepticism– or perhaps precisely because of it — Padre Manuel motions over to him, hands him a set of bells, and instructs him to stand over the woman, ringing them right above her face. Naturally, Padre Manuel explains, demonic spirits are scared off by the sound of bells. Gold complies. More thrashing and screaming ensues, and then eventually subsides. The exorcism comes to a close as the demonic spirit is declared to have deserted its earthly host. At the end of the ordeal, there is a vague sense of unease. What exactly had just happened?

“At the beginning, I didn’t realize how serious it could be”, Gold told BubbleAr in an exclusive interview. “I felt very uncomfortable. This woman was really suffering.”

This is one of the first sequences in Exorcism: The Battle for Young Minds, the new BBC documentary directed by David Hayes and written and presented by Gold, which can currently be streamed for free at the BBC Three Youtube Channel. The documentary seeks to examine the true nature of exorcisms in Argentina — not just the practice itself, but the culture surrounding it; the perception of the ritual as an alternative to conventional medical practices, the intermingling of religion and pop culture, and the borderline idolatry and hero worship that surrounds the documentary’s central figure, Padre Manuel.

Padre Manuel is a popular figure in Argentina. His sermons draw enormous crowds, he makes regular appearances on TV talk shows, and he even runs his own school for exorcists. He was propelled to international stardom after a video of one of his violent exorcisms went viral three years ago. The fawning adoration with which he is regularly treated — not just by his own flock of faithful followers, but also by the Argentine media — was one of the motivating factors in making this documentary.

“I found it odd how journalists were giving him an easy time, treating him as either a figure of fun or as an authority figure,” says Gold. “I think, not just in Argentina but across the world, exorcism is viewed a little bit ironically. People see it as a scary horror film, or some sort of magic trick. They don’t realize that it can actually be devastating.”

At the heart of the report is the troubling matter of society’s most vulnerable turning to the paranormal as a quick fix; instead of pursuing medical treatment for ailments that may be more neurological than spiritual, they place their faith in a loud, almost theatrical ritual that appears to provide some temporary relief, but often results in a decline back to ill health.

One of the documentary’s subjects, a teenage girl named Candela, turns to the Padre after years of struggling with anorexia, bulimia, and self-harm. She describes the extent of her hopelessness in heartbreaking detail. Her family, feeling desperate and clearly hurting for their daughter, turns to the Padre after some initial skepticism. The exorcism itself is shown in the documentary. It is long, arduous, and harrowing to witness. In a state of apparent dissociation, Candela engages in a verbal jousting with the Padre, responding to his prayer with lines like “you’ll never have her” and “she’s mine”. After the ritual, the teen reports a huge improvement in her health and overall disposition.

The documentary flirts with the notion that there may be some practical use to the ritual, and Candela’s case appears to confirm that at first. But, as we eventually find out, she relapses and her mental health deteriorates, prompting her to seek out another solution. I asked Gold if, after all he had seen, he was of the opinion that there could be a benefit to exorcisms. After a pause, he offered: “No. I think it’s a catharsis that works maybe for a month or two. But it is such a daunting process to go through. At best, it might just not help; at worst, it could really hurt the individual.”

Gold’s assessment stands in sharp contrast with the opinions of the Padre’s loyal followers and staff, some of whom have actually gone through the process themselves. The Padre’s young assistant, Paula, describes her decades of struggling with mental illness before meeting the Padre and undergoing an exorcism some time ago. Her relationship with the Padre becomes an unexpectedly significant factor in the report.

Of course, the Padre is not without his critics. Some members of the Argentine media accuse him of being a liar and a fake. I asked Gold if he believed the Padre and his staff were true sincere in their convictions, or knowingly peddling false solutions. “I think it varies between individuals,” Gold said. “I would imagine that his staff is absolutely convinced, just like his followers are. The way they listen to him, the way they do what he wants. And there’s nothing in it for them; they’re not getting any money, there’s no fame for them. I think those people really, really do believe in it”

“As for the Padre himself, despite having spent weeks and weeks with him… I just couldn’t say. “

Throughout his various interviews with people on all sides of the belief spectrum, Gold maintains a disposition that comes off as both playful and sincere; he jokingly references films like The Ghostbusters and Sixth Sense when talking to a paranormal investigator at the Padre’s school for exorcists, but he also engages their often bewildering claims with unflinching honesty. At one point, a different priest attempts to “bring him closer to God” by delivering a long, convoluted prayer while pressing his palm firmly on Gold’s forehead. When he is done, both men comment on how intense that prayer was, but Gold then calls him out: “I got the feeling that you wanted me to fall over.”

Gold’s cool, collected demeanor is tested — and ultimately broken — during the nerve-wracking confrontation towards the end of the documentary, where tensions between the documentary crew and the Padre’s organization reach their absolute boiling point. This part of the documentary may be the most eye-opening and also the hardest to watch. Voices are raised and tempers flare up during a quickly escalating argument that involves scandalous insinuations, accusations of dishonesty, and a bizarre intervention by a local journalist. This leads to a conclusion that is both surreal and utterly farcical.

Exorcism: The Battle for Young Minds is an unsettling look at what can happen when superstition and pop culture collide, and a misguided quest for solutions in hero worship and absolute devotion. It is engrossing, disturbing, and often surprisingly funny. Stream it in its entirety below:

Publicado en Bubble.ar el
2018-09-08 09:00:56

Jorge Farah

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