Me and the Cult Leader Review: Modern Report on Banality of Evil

RIDM doc is a slow burn account of atonement and goodwill

2 mins read

Me and the Cult Leader
(Japan, 114 min)
Dir. Atsushi Sakahara

In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult launched a sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 and injured more than 6,000. In Me and the Cult Leader, director Atsushi Sakahara, who was one of those injured in the attack, travels with and extensively interviews Hiroshi Araki, who was part of the cult, although not directly involved with the sarin gas attack.

Cults are fascinating and bizarre things, so documentaries in which victims confront those involved with the crimes that harmed them are often powerful. However, Me and the Cult Leader is an entirely unusual film. It breaks with traditions one might associate with such documented meetings. Instead of tearful apologies, it provides Araki’s cold veneer, which is only briefly deconstructed by Sakahara, even after a reunion with Araki’s parents. Araki is straight-laced, seemingly uptight and at times almost lifeless—stunning given the gravity of the crime that Sakahara attempts to broach with him.

Araki remains part of the cult that thought the sarin attack was a great idea. There are moments in which he has to show some regret, including simply in front of the one camera and again at a press conference in front of many. His exterior speaks volumes about the cult mentality and its extensive grip. He barely seems to break, and things only barely seem to register at fleeting moments.

Sakahara, meanwhile, is his own enigma. He speaks with Araki patiently, showing few signs of someone who still experiences physical and mental scars from the ’95 attack. His goodwill towards someone wrapped up in this cult is remarkable. Me and the Cult Leader isn’t one of those documentaries with a punch line or eureka moment. It’s a slow burn that leaves us anguished at the ways in which the human mind can apparently justify almost anything.

Me and the Cult Leader screens at RIDM beginning Nov. 19.


A long-time contributing editor at POV, Hays teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. His articles on documentary have appeared in Cineaste, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Toronto Star.

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