In 2002, Marjorie Sturm began work on a film documenting the life of praised alternative author JT LeRoy. LeRoy (a.k.a. “the Terminator”), a transgendered, heroin addicted, HIV positive, ex-teen prostitute had been reclusive up until this point, having never made public appearances. After a few weeks of filming, Sturm’s project was abandoned as LeRoy revoked her permission to document their tale. A few years later, it was revealed that JT was not, in fact, who they said they were, as JT LeRoy had instead was the pseudonym of American writer Laura Albert; the woman that Sturm had been following was her public avatar, played by Savannah Knoop. It is from this point that Sturm’s latest documentary kicks off, unravelling the cult of personality that “LeRoy” formed around themselves through the replication of archival footage and interviews with those wound up in Albert’s web, painting a broad picture of the fallout of this case of manufactured identity.
JT LeRoy (Savannah Knoop) spent much of the late ’90s and early ’00s hanging out with celebrities like Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins, Caveh Zahedi (director of the underappreciated I Am A Sex Addict), Shirley Manson of Garbage (who wrote their Australian chart topping “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)” about LeRoy), and Asia Argento (who went on to adapt LeRoy’s breakthrough novel The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things into a feature-length film of the same name). Prior to their time in the public spotlight, Albert (acting as LeRoy) developed behind the scenes relationships with a number of famous alternative authors, spinning a web of mental and emotional abuse and deceit around the likes of Dennis Cooper, Bruce Benderson, Joel Rose, and Laurie Stone, manipulating them into answering emails on her behalf and maintaining her online persona to the wider public, further legitimizing the world she created around LeRoy. It’s all pretty shocking stuff, and certainly disturbing that a wide array of (presumably) intelligent free-thinkers can be so strongly manipulated by one person’s celebrity. Sturm’s lo-fi filmmaking style thrives in her analysis of the rapid expansion of Albert and Knoop’s web of lies and its rapid disintegration, with her strong sense of story-telling forming the backbone of what feels like a very punk, very DIY production.
In fact, The Cult of JT LeRoy is a strong candidate to make a case that documentary cinema can be elevated far beyond its budgetary constraints if the content explored is interesting. The film is by no means polished but Sturm manages to make every new revelation more shocking than the last; with each new twist and turn the tale becomes even more fascinating, drawing us further into Albert’s twisted, manufactured world that becomes almost cult-like by the time that it all collapses in on itself. Editor Josh Melrod adeptly strings together a collage of home video and pro-shot footage of LeRoy’s press junkets, celebrity meetings, and magazine interviews with talking heads interviews with the victims of LeRoy’s deceit to weave an intricate tale of the wide support base that Albert built around her LeRoy persona, explaining the icon’s literary significance, and painting a broader picture of the more personal impacts that Albert’s deceit had on a number of individuals.
Its inclusion in this year’s true crime sidebar at MIFF is a bit peculiar, given that the only legally clear crime committed here was probably the sale of film rights under false pretenses, something that is almost treated as a footnote in Sturm’s feature. While the fraud was certainly widespread, it is not (necessarily) unlawful for an author to use a pseudonym1 and although a lot of famous authors seem cheated by Albert and Knoop’s deceit, it doesn’t seem like any would have a legitimate case in a court of law. However, what is perhaps most fascinating about this tale is that the emotionally abusive nature of Albert’s fraudulent activities has left many in the position of those who have been victims of crime: financially worse off and nursing a fractured psyche.
Overall, The Cult of JT LeRoy is a strong effort from Marjorie Sturm that does well to overcome its financial constraints in its tale of widespread literary deceit. It will be great to see what Sturm has to offer on a higher budget, she has clearly demonstrated a strong aptitude to weave fascinating narratives.