“Not My Father’s Child” tells the story of Nate, Mark and Dortha Phelps, three of the 13 children of the late Fred Phelps, founder of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.
While Phelps and the members of Westboro Baptist are well-known for their “God Hates Fags” public protests, the excruciating abuse levied by Phelps against his wife and children has remained, for the most part, hauntingly hidden away for decades. Told through chilling re-enactment scenes and personal interviews with Nate, Mark and Dortha, “Not My Father’s Child” reveals the untold story of the only three first-generation runaways. From their daily struggle to endure the abusive outbursts of their father to breaking free from the indoctrination of a belief system grounded in hate to their search for emotional and psychological healing to their desire to eradicate hate and help others, they invite viewers to join them for a behind-the-scenes look at their journey from hate to hope.
On a mission to make sense of their abusive past, the first act of the film follows Nate, Mark and Dortha as they retrace their father’s early footsteps and recount the stories of abuse each child endured at the hands of their father. Reenactments bring these stories to life as the children are forced to sell candy as the only family income, punish each other for missed quotas, yet still find ways to deceive the “pastor” and have childish fun. As the abuse intensifies within their home, during the second act, Nate, Mark and Dortha give us an unprecedented look into the mindset of religious abuse survivors as they independently escape their father’s grasp and begin to develop their own lives outside of the church.
Unsure of their new world around them, they must face challenges of faith and integration into a life outside the family cult where they quickly discover they can’t leave the past behind them. Intertwined in their journeys and facing personal and professional challenges stemming from the abuse suffered during their upbringing, we connect with the characters in present day and learn of their desire to help subsequent generations now leaving the church. The third act of the film shows our three characters reuniting for the first time in 20 years, and concludes with an open, multi-generational gathering to all who have escaped Westboro. As the three siblings begin to establish new relationships with family they never knew, they must overcome deep preconceived notions and distrust instilled in each follower of the Phelps family cult.
Messages and Introductions to the Cast
My core purpose for joining my brother and sister in this documentary about our family is to support them in telling the truth. My father’s abusive use of religion was unique to his own pathology and it was dark and evil. I know my father’s god condemns, intimidates and enjoys crushing the life out of human beings.
Based on my father’s teachings and behavior, I know his god can hardly wait to destroy the world, and will take delight in doing so. I know that his god has no compassion or love. Fred W. Phelps Sr.’s hateful god leaves the world with no hope and, if my father would have had his way, hundreds of millions of Christians all over the world would be denied their Savior and their salvation today.
I am so thankful that the god of Fred W. Phelps Sr. is not my god and not my savior, and not the true God of the universe. My God announced "Peace on Earth. Good Will to Men" the day His Son was born to a virgin here on the earth, and this statement represents great hope for all human beings!
My deepest desire for those who have been hurt by my family, or who have experienced religious or spiritual abuse, or any kind of abuse in the name of religion, or in the name of God, is that this film will help them know they are not alone and that there is hope. --- Mark
Dortha Phelps Bird
For me, the documentary is essential to cast light upon the origin of the violent picketing that is perpetrated by Westboro Baptist Church/my birth family (hereafter referred to as WBC).
The foundation of WBC is specialness. WBC claims they are the only chosen elect of God in the whole of humanity - that Calvinism is the only truth. WBC's focus in the Bible is upon what can justify cruelty and manipulation to, through fear, ensure that WBC's specialness is taught to the world.
This documentary is an answer to this abomination. My evidence is my experience in interacting with the complexity, diversity and profound beauty of humanity. My experience has shown me that God is not an ally of specialness. No one person's path is less sacred than another.
Importantly, you exist to share and live your truth. It is your duty to express yourself authentically. That doesn't mean you're special, it means you are singing your part in this one song of the universe. So, to reiterate, WBC is profoundly mistaken - they perpetrate great error and I think this must be addressed. This documentary will, help in this regard. With it, the conversation is fuller. With a more complete picture, there is a hope for healing.
As my brother Nathan says, "Hope floats." My profound blessings in this invitation to take this journey with us. --- Dortha
When I saw Brad Johnson’s vignette about his mother’s coming out experience at the age of 52, I knew he had an understanding of abusive religious dynamics that only comes from experience. When I met them a few months later in Lawrence, Kansas, and they asked if they could do a documentary about my story, I knew they were the ones who would do it right. Because they get it.
When I watched the trailer they’ve created for "Not My Father’s Child," I was reminded again…they get it. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with them and the remarkable team they have assembled to get this message out…the cure for bigotry of the brain is to inoculate the heart with loving connections. In addition to my sincere thank you to each of you who are investing in this project, I make this commitment: This investment will not return empty. We will change hearts and minds. We will save lives. We will secure a better future for the coming generations. --- Nate
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Brad Johnson – Director
Brad was raised in Kansas and has always been fascinated with stories involving the heartland. After several encounters with protesters from Westboro Baptist Church, the idea of filming a documentary about the church grew into a deep desire to tell a different story – it wasn’t the church that caught Brad’s heart, it was their victims. As an accomplished Director of Photography and Post Production Manager, Brad has the perfect combination of talent and discipline to tackle a story of this magnitude. Brad has an extensive background in television working many different roles on shows for Showtime, National Geographic, Discovery, AMC, WGN, PBS, and ESPN; in addition to national commercials, local advertising campaigns and awarded documentaries.
Jason Badgett – Director
Jason was born and raised in Paola, Kansas, before graduating from the University of Kansas in 2010 with a degree in Film and Media Studies and a minor in Religious Studies. While attending KU, he was a founding member of the Documentary Film Society. As a production sound mixer and editor, Jason worked on television programs for CBS, ABC and Hulu, as well as independent films including Jayhawkers, The Profit and Destination Planet Negro. He works as a lighting designer and sound engineer for concerts, theatre and other performing arts productions. Jason recently designed the lighting for Barry Crimmins' comedy special "Whatever Threatens You" produced by Louis CK and has also worked with artists Aziz Ansari, Tig Notaro, Marc Maron, John Waters, Adam Lambert, The Mountain Goats, Mount Eerie and John Cale.
Terrie Johnson – Producer
Terrie’s story is difficult to condense into one paragraph, but as a well-known public speaker, she has the unique gift of establishing an immediate connection with her audience. Within moments of meeting Terrie, people say they feel like they’ve known her their entire lives. Her sense of integrity, coupled with a genuine love and concern for others, causes people both young and old to open up and share their lives and their stories with her. As the Senior Editor of a nationally recognized advertising agency in Kansas City, Terrie has been involved with media production in all forms for more than 20 years. She is the author of two books and writes a blog that has a large and growing readership base. This is Terrie’s first step behind the camera as she directs the interview sessions.
We Need Your Help!
The goal of this Kickstarter is to generate enough funds to allow us to complete production of the film over the next six months. Due to the geographic locations of our characters, we have multiple international and cross-country trips still to make.
Every dollar gets us closer to the goal of making this film a reality, but we will need much more than our initial goal to finish post-production. In addition to grant funding, anything over our goal will go toward the following, in order:
- Filming of cinematic recreations of key events
- Pay our wonderful composer Sam Billen
- Pay our Assistant Editor enough to eat
- Hire an incredibly talented Emmy Award-Winning Editor to oversee post production
- Expanding our distribution strategy so the film can be seen by more people in more places
Where Will It Be Seen?
We want our film to have broad and extensive distribution so that it will reach and impact as many individuals as possible who are currently trapped in abusive environments. In addition to participating in pitch competitions such as IF Week, we plan to work closely with multiple fellowships in preparation for distribution.
The film will be submitted to film festivals, and we hope to make it available to stream through services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and HBO. We will also organize a grassroots effort for screening the film in a variety of venues, including LGBTQ organizations on college campuses, churches and other faith-based groups, conferences for mental health professionals, law enforcement agencies and child abuse prevention organizations. These screenings will include a question and answer session following the showing of the film. The goal of this grassroots campaign is to enlist the aid of these organizations in raising awareness of the issues addressed in the film.
Risks and challenges
The extreme child abuse doled out inside the walls of the Westboro Baptist Church has remained hidden largely due to the Phelps' high-profile status as ruthless legal experts. Westboro and the Phelps family are represented by the Phelps' law firm, Phelps Chartered, and have successfully defended themselves all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There is risk involved in telling our story, since the Phelps may try to stop it with legal action. However, such a move would only add publicity to our project, thus we do not anticipate them doing so. In the case that they do, any such publicity will be used to further the reach of the film.
The biggest challenge we face is still funding. We are asking for only the bare minimum we need to finish the production of the film, but additional funds will need to be raised to ensure a successful festival run and guarantee distribution upon completion. We have been hard at work submitting to grant organizations and pitching to investors to raise funds for post-production, but everything raised here on Kickstarter makes that task infinitely easier!Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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