Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema Founder and Director Steve Savage said of his friend’s movie before it played Saturday afternoon, “It is very special, very poignant, very moving,” and left the stage for the audience to witness themselves.
“A Man Called God” is the story of a handsome, 14-year-old American boy who lost his innocence in 1980 in a South Indian ashram to a world-renowned guru named Sai Baba who had 50 million followers, all believing he was God. Emmy-award-winning actor Kristoff St. John, best known as Neil Winters in the “Young and the Restless,” narrates his own story through footage the late Baird Bryant shot and Kristoff’s actor father, Christopher St. John, directed.
After struggling with shame and confusion, Kristoff told his father of the three molestations in hopes his parents would get him away from Sai Baba. Lucky for him, his father took notice. Sadly, his step-mother, Maria St. John, an actress in her own right, was so swept up in Sai Baba’s movement she did not believe her son. While father, son and film crew — there to film the trip — packed up and came back to America after four months, Maria remained behind, ousted from the ashram because Sai Baba suspected the family knew of his “sins.” She stayed in the neighboring village, begging to return, waiting at the gate of the ashram but finally returning to America after receiving death threats.
Chris and Maria’s marriage would not survive the trip. “God” didn’t make it either. Sai Baba, claiming immaculate conception and to be the father of Jesus Christ, died in 2011, still with millions of followers, despite years of allegations of molesting hundreds of boys and other wrongdoings.
Nearly three years ago and after much prodding by Kristoff, Chris allowed his son to view the footage he and Bryant produced and shelved. Kristoff took what was to be a tribute to “God,” and came away with a powerful message about religious leaders and men in power who indoctrinate their beliefs into the minds of people so weak and searching for answers, as he said in the film, “We sell our souls for one little piece of heaven …” “Remember Jonestown” is repeated throughout the film.
Just seven years before this now 48-year-old lost his innocence to a powerful, only 5-foot-tall orange-robed avatar behind a red curtain for the reason of “divine purification” while his parents naively waited for him not far away, Kristoff was a happy boy living in Idyllwild.
“Some of my greatest memories were of here as a boy playing in the grotto, swinging from trees on ropes, riding my bike up and down Inspiration Point, going to Idyllwild Elementary …,” said Kristoff. “Idyllwild has a special soul to it … I retreat to Idyllwild for brief periods of time just to feel it again.”
The St. Johns lived here full-time in 1973 and 1974, living an alternative lifestyle away from the insanity of Hollywood — bell bottoms and health food, like many young people during that era.
The family became friends with Town Crier former owners Luther and Marilyn Weare, so close that one day, one of the Weares’ daughters came home and caught Kristoff stealing cheese from their refrigerator.
“My parents had me on an austere diet of raw foods and it was not uncommon for me to go to school with a big shopping bag full of carrots, celery, sunflower seeds (not salted), sprouts, maybe an avocado and that would be it. So I started stealing lunches — this is why I stole from Marilyn and Luther — I stole lunches from Idyllwild Elementary. No one knew for, I don’t know, a good six months. Then finally the lunch thief was caught because in the lunchroom, one of the kids was named Bud. I’ll never forget it. He saw me eating an item from his lunch and he said, ‘Hey, that’s mine,’ … and he ripped open my bag and out fell his lunch that said ‘Bud’ in big letters. I was busted,” he said, laughing.
Baird Bryant is another Idyllwild connection, though Bryant would not move to Idyllwild for several more decades. Chris, best known for such films as “Shaft,” had worked professionally with the award-winning cinematographer. In the early 1970s, Maria became very much caught up in Sai Baba’s movement. From that came the idea to go to India and have Bryant film the trip. Sai Baba also wanted the filming. Kristoff said Bryant was reluctant but finally decided to go.
“Baird Bryant was a champion,” said Kristoff. “He shot this film so beautifully and cinematically, unlike any other documentarian would do. He had a film style, because he was a director of photography, so he would set up and then just roll the camera. Nine times out of 10 the entire reel would be useable, we just couldn’t use it all. We had 20 hours of film we had to whittle down.” Bryant died in Hemet in 2008. (View his obituary at idyllwildtowncrier.com/2008/11/27/obituary-baird-bryant/)
When asked how he was able to narrate a story so personal without anger, Kristoff said, “Well, it was important to tell this story in such a way that the audience would be able to digest the information without a hostile environment. The story itself is hostile enough. The images, which are very surreal, colorful, a lot of super impositions, a lot of slow motion, a lot of time lapse — I thought the narration should be gentle, yet pointed, strong and poetic.”
Did he ever think of having someone else do the narration? “Never, never, because then it would have taken away the personal touch. It’s my story. There was no one else who could narrate this.”
The award-winning documentary, unfortunately, has not been released to the general public, but it at least touched a few who attended its showing. Several in the audience during the Q&A afterward said they had similar experiences as children, thanking Kristoff for opening up about such a private experience. “I think [the film] will help ease the pain of a lot of young people, and old people alike, who have experienced this …,” said Kristoff. Later that evening at the IIFC awards show, it earned the Best Documentary Award.
View the trailer at www.mancalledgodmovie.com.