Tribeca 2020: “Pray Away” (2020) ★★★★

How can we force someone to change the way they think or see themselves in this world? Can we advocate our own lifestyle to others? Do we really have to be concerned about the sexuality of others when the world has issues much bigger than that? Since when did we get the right to jump into someone’s personal life to dictate how they should live their life? Good or bad, there are organizations that think they can alter people’s ideals, convert them back to where they need to be through religion, and help them lead the ‘ideal life’; a life which most of us do not really know the taste of yet want many others to follow.

“Pray away”, directed by Kristine Stolakis, follows the members of the former Exodus International, the largest and most controversial conversion therapists in the world and their way of promoting a gay-free lifestyle, being normal, and be accepted by God. As the years pass by, they come to terms with the fact that they have not only been lying to themselves but to others as well by promoting what has never existed; an ideology that has brought more harm than resolution only to prevent their followers from turning gay.

It all started back in the 1970s when five people found themselves in the midst of an internal fight amongst themselves. Being members of the Evangelical church, they begin studying the bible to help each other free themselves from the ‘gay lifestyle’. What started as just a small gathering turns into an annual conference with massive followers, resulting in the creation of an organization known as Exodus International. The film offers in-depth and insightful interviews of its members Julie Rodgers, Randy Thomas, Yvette Cantu Schneider, John Paulk, and Jeffrey McCall. 

Thanks to the excellent direction by Kristine Stolakis, “Pray Away” paints an image of religion and how it affects people when they’re coerced into following a prejudiced way of life, which is both painful and heartbreaking. Or rather how religion itself is being used to reshape human behavior and talk about their sexuality as if it’s something that needs to be talked about by everyone. As we watch the documentary film, we learn how many lives were affected by Exodus International, the so-called reparative conversion therapy that in reality did not fix but break the human spirit and its desire to evolve in the way it should’ve.

That being said, it is never easy to watch films like this, especially when it is so well-crafted. Do we need to compare homosexuals with pedophiles or child molesters? Of course not. But when you watch certain archival footage and hear that comparison, it becomes no wonder why many people decide to take their own lives. Conversion therapies such as those by Exodus International are aimed at brainwashing people and making them the slave of their fears. We all want to change one way or another but there is a level of change we all can commit to. Certain things cannot be changed; we can’t tell people who to love or not. Sexual preference is not a function of our conscious mind that can be altered.

“Pray Away” does not try to educate us nor force its own opinion. It just helps us to go through from one scene to another as we process the information we receive. What it does though is significant in terms of gathering the information and presenting it to us through the people who were directly involved with Exodus International, how their lives were affected, and how they felt bad about what they had done. More importantly, the ‘truth’ they would tell others were such plain lies that at some point they had to concede that it simply was. Sadly, while we get a chance to learn the truth, some of those who were part of their gay conversion therapies were not lucky enough to live long enough to see “Pray Away” and realize that they were as perfect as they could get. It was just the world they lived in that was not ready to accept them and when it was ready to open its arms, a lot of them were gone without ever being embraced and comforted as they should’ve been in the first place.

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