New Mexico Compound's Enraptured Believers

By Neil Genzlinger
New York Times
May 7, 2008 1210162454-hcg/mSDv3u0wWWmvgqDCRA&oref=slogin

There is much to make the jaw drop in "Inside a Cult," a timely documentary about the Strong City sect in New Mexico being shown on Wednesday on the National Geographic Channel. But by its end you may feel that the most stunning thing is that this film exists at all. Why would these people have let a documentarian get so close to their exceedingly eccentric world?

Michael Travesser (wearing a hood), the former Wayne Bent, and his followers in Inside a Cult.
Photo by National Geographic

The cult consists of about 50 followers of Michael Travesser, a gaunt, scraggly man who says he is the Messiah (something he says God revealed to him back in 2000, when his name was Wayne Bent). The film is no archival cut-and-paste job; Ben Anthony, the director and cinematographer, was admitted to the group's compound and invited to interview both leader and followers.

His camera catches one incredible detail after another: it was God's will that Mr. Travesser, 66, sleep with other men's wives, including his own daughter-in-law, and that assorted young women and under-age girls lie nude with him. As the interviewees talk about such things, you might find yourself thinking, "These people obviously didn't understand the power of the medium or how insane they would sound on film." But think again: the cult is thoroughly media-savvy, maintaining an extensive Web site ( full of video and blogs.

That Web site is now replete with denunciations of this film, first seen on National Geographic last month. (A version was broadcast in England late last year.) The filmmakers, the group says, selectively edited interviews and distorted its beliefs, including misrepresenting what it said would happen last Oct. 31, depicted in the film as some kind of end-of-the-world Judgment Day.

Sure, there is a point of view in the documentary, as evident from Mr. Anthony's excessive use of close-ups of cult members' vacant stares. But even if the film is, say, only 10 percent accurate, it's an alarm bell, especially after the recent accounts involving the much larger, polygamist sect in Texas. The authorities in New Mexico, at least, seem to have heard the alarm: two weeks ago they came in and removed three minors from the compound, and on Tuesday they arrested Mr. Travesser on three charges of criminal sexual contact, The Associated Press reported.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.