A screencap of three people on a zoom call.
Filmmaker Cecilia Peck (left) and cult survivor Keely Griffin (center) joined Robert Milazzo’s communications 101 lecture to talk about the making of the docuseries, “Escaping Twin Flames.” (Contributed image)

VCU mass communications students get inside look at making of Netflix docuseries

‘Escaping Twin Flames’ filmmaker and featured cult survivor offer perspective and access for instructor Robert Milazzo’s mass communications class.

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An Emmy-nominated filmmaker and a cult survivor made a virtual visit recently to a Virginia Commonwealth University classroom, giving students insight into the documentary process – and giving them a high-level chance to apply their studies and their voices to real-world scenarios.

In an hourlong chat, filmmaker Cecilia Peck and survivor Keely Griffin discussed “Escaping Twin Flames,” a three-part Netflix documentary released in November. Their VCU audience was 100 students in the Mass Communications 101 class of media production professor Robert Milazzo.

The docuseries, directed by Peck, follows survivors of the Twin Flames Universe, an online group purporting to help its members find their “twin flames,” or one true loves. Former members, including Griffin, have alleged that the organization, led by Jeff and Shaleia Divine, uses controlling and coercive tactics to prey on people looking for love.

“Conversation leads to more conversation,” said Milazzo, an instructor in the Richardson T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “When we have guests, we’re expanding the opportunity for discussion. This one was particularly unique to me because we’re looking at something that is not history – it’s present tense.”

Each week, Milazzo’s class explores a different method of communications, with discussions bolstered by guest speakers such as Peck and Griffin. Milazzo said the speakers highlight how methods and concepts are reflected outside the classroom, and how students should engage.

“I want the students here to feel their voice matters as much as anyone’s voice doing anything anywhere in the world,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a hierarchy of voices. It’s pretty intimidating to talk to filmmakers if you’re a student, but I want them to know that this is thought that transcends being in a college – and the best way to remind them of that is to have other people who have nothing to do with academics come and speak to them.”

During the discussion, Peck and Griffin answered questions about how they met, the process of making the documentary and the feelings that the process inspired.

“I wanted someone to be able to tell this story correctly and really show the dangers – someone who could understand what I was going through,” said Griffin, who reached out to Peck to share her own cult experience after seeing the 2020 series “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult,” which Peck also directed. “It was pretty clear to me in ‘Seduced’ that they understood the mechanisms of coercion and they understood what all the survivors went through.”

It was difficult, Griffin added, to agree to step onto a national and even international stage. But it was important to her to tell her story, with the hope of helping others avoid being preyed on by similar organizations.

“Keely was an ideal subject for us because she was in the process of educating herself about coercive control, and she allowed us into that journey of trying to understand and make sense of everything that had happened to her,” Peck said. “My producing partner, Inbal Lessner, and I realized we had an incredible spokesperson to educate the audience about what it is like to be in a high-control group and what it takes to leave and recover.”

Miles Ragin, a sophomore majoring in interdisciplinary studies, said “Escaping Twin Flames” stood out among cult documentaries for the intimacy of its storytelling.

“This was the first documentary where I felt like it really brought me to tears because it was so raw and real,” Ragin said. “It’s really brave to share a story that is so personal and open it up to so many different backgrounds and cultures.”

Aaron Johnson, a junior studying media production who is interested in videography, said Peck offered many excellent tips for aspiring documentarians. “She made it understandable,” he said.

Griffin called the conversation with Milazzo and his students “a great opportunity.”

“It made me excited about further educational efforts around these issues, particularly for future journalists and documentarians,” she said.