Remember the south London slavery case that came to light in 2013? Maoist Aravindan Balakrishnan, “Comrade Bala”, had kept several women prisoner in a house in Lambeth for decades, brainwashing them and subjecting them to emotional and physical abuse. Now, filmmaker Vanessa Engle has made a documentary about it, The Cult Next Door (BBC2), which traces the story back to its origins in the 1970s, and tries to make some kind of sense of it. And it’s extraordinary.
Well, it’s an extraordinary story. But the documentary adds a lot more to what we already know, helps us to understand how this could have happened.
Engle has exclusive interviews with two of the three woman who escaped from the house. She is excellent – gently gaining their trust, while probing and being thorough. When there’s humour, she and her film aren’t afraid to acknowledge it. For instance, the story of the pizza delivery man with the wrong address who was, Bala said, the fascist state trying to provoke him and on which he unleashed the Kobe earthquake as punishment.
But when more rigorous questioning is required, such as trying to find out whether one of the women, Aisha Wahab, was complicit in the abuse, Engle doesn’t hold back.