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On May 29, a jet plane carrying a pilot crashed into a lake near Nashville, killing all seven people on board. Among them were Gwen Shamblin Lara, a weight loss guru and founder of the Remnant Fellowship Church of Brentwood, Tennessee, and her husband, William Lara, who was known as Joe and Tarzan was once featured in both a television series and the movie “Tarzan in Manhattan.” .
The leader of a medium-sized ward, Ms. Lara, 66, had been the main subject of a documentary film project in recent years that sought to go beyond the gilded facade of the Remnant Fellowship and examine its insides. The multi-episode project “The Way Down,” slated to debut this fall on HBO Max, describes the origins of the Church in Ms. Lara’s religious weight loss program, the Weigh Down Workshop.
The diet program brought Ms. Lara fame through appearances on popular shows such as “Larry King Live” – and fortune from bestselling books promoting her weight loss strategies. But it also made her a controversial figure, with critics saying Weigh Down focused more on unconventional theology than healthy eating habits. The documentary examines these issues, along with allegations that the church has avoided and even harassed members who wanted to quit, and that it functions as a sect rather than a traditional religious institution.
At the time of the crash, the series was being given the finishing touches. Suddenly the filmmakers were faced with new questions. How great was Mr. Lara’s flight experience (he piloted the plane) and was his medical records up to date? What would happen to the church after its founder and leader died? (The day after the crash, the church issued a statement saying Ms. Lara’s daughter and son “intend to continue Gwen Shamblin Lara’s dream of helping people relate to God.”)
And what would happen in the bitter custody case involving Mr Lara’s daughter with his ex-wife, which was a crucial plot in the documentary?
The filmmakers also said that since the crash they had found that more people were eager to speak to them – former parishioners who said they were previously unwilling to crack down on the church publicly because they still had family members who related to them, and relatives of those who died in the crash who were skeptical of the Church and now felt compelled to share their stories.
“Within 24 hours I had heard from every single source and the first thing everyone said was, ‘I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but please tell me that doesn’t change anything,'” said producer Nile Cappello, an investigative Journalist who began researching the Remnant Fellowship in 2018.
Ms. Cappello added that those who had already spoken out against the Church, some at great personal sacrifice, most often heard concerns that the documentary would be restricted in some way, “that we have opened these wounds for free”.
Although the documentary shows archival material from Ms. Lara’s sermon and media appearances, neither she nor representatives of the Remnant Fellowship were interviewed by the filmmakers in front of the camera.
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“I never thought that she would give us an interview,” said the series director, Marina Zenovich, of Ms. Lara. “Never.”
The Remnant Fellowship did not answer calls asking for comments on the series for this article.
While the filmmakers struggled to incorporate the news of the crash and its aftermath into the documentary, HBO Max also changed his plans. Instead of releasing a four-part series at the end of September, the first three episodes of “The Way Down” will be available on September 30th and conclude with a “To Be Continued” message. The last two episodes will air in early 2022 and give filmmakers time to grapple with the new footage. The documentary now begins with local coverage of the crash.
“There’s a bigger story to tell,” said Lizzie Fox, senior vice president of nonfiction at HBO Max. “We just want to make sure we have enough time to go into the story and investigate to come up with some answers. and give us time to question all topics. With a limited documentary series, I think that if there is ever a chance to have a second part, people will be happy about it. “
Ms. Zenovich is a documentary filmmaker who has spent most of her career focusing on men like Roman Polanski, Lance Armstrong, and Robin Williams. But the world of evangelical religion was uncharted territory, which it chose because of its compelling character at the center of the story.
“It’s deeply troubling,” she said. “But I chose it because I was fascinated by Gwen.”
Ms. Lara, who trained as a nutritionist, started her Weigh Down workshop in 1986. It was a nutritional plan that set general health guidelines aside and instead focused on trusting God, and urged members to eat only when their stomachs growled, to understand true hunger. Her advice had become very popular in religious communities by the mid-2000s, and Ms. Lara’s books had sold millions of copies. She brought this success to the Remnant Fellowship, a church she founded with her then-husband David Shamblin in 1999 after separating from the Church of Christ. The philosophies of weighing remained a central tenet of their new church.
As ex-members describe in the documentary, the church was less a place of worship than an all-encompassing power that took over every aspect of their lives, where they worked and how they dressed, who they married. Body image and appearance were central elements, and the documentary tells of Ms. Lara’s own transformation, from a lively young nutritionist with the girl-next-door eyes to a very thin, heavily made-up avatar whose hair seemed to grow tall in proportion to her their power.
Ms. Lara’s wider popularity eventually began to wane, in part because of her opposition to the Holy Trinity, views that led one Christian publisher to cancel her upcoming book and others to stop promoting her weight loss program.
“Gwen’s entire control is using misogyny against other women,” said Ms. Cappello, adding that Ms. Lara was one of the few female religious leaders in the evangelical Christian movement but had an all-male leadership team. Ms. Lara also demanded that her parishioners adhere to traditional family gender roles in order to maintain their position in the Church.
Allegations made in “The Way Down” include allegations that those unable to lose weight have been marginalized by the parish and that members have been encouraged by the Remnant leadership to stop taking Stop prescribed medications, including birth control and psychiatric drugs.
Now filmmakers strive to tell a fuller story of the Church, its founding, and its influence on Brentwood.
“It was never about not going on,” says Ms. Zenovich, who is particularly driven by the stories of people leaving the church. “It’s about changing the way we wanted to tell the story.”