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Every once in a while I return to the enigma that is cTom, a/k/a Tom Charley, an independent filmmaker from Michigan responsible for some of the weirdest American films of the millennium. The four that I know about — Lucy's Law, The President Goes to Heaven, Song Of the Blind Girl, and Who Killed Aliyah? — were seemingly written in a prolonged creative fit that pushed through all sorts of barriers: lack of equipment, lack of acting talent, lack of the most rudimentary filmmaking knowledge. These are parables for our modern, conspiracy-fraught media landscape, made years before anyone had ever dreamt up QAnon.

I have been able to scrape up a little information about cTom, but since he’s a private person, I’m not going to dox him. Nearest I can tell through public records searches is that cTom is 68 years old. He’s bought and sold some real estate, and in 1999 he registered a business in Michigan that developed web pages. An immigrant from either India or Pakistan, his family — who settled in the Detroit area — is Catholic. He has some very strong opinions about the government, religion, and the corruption endemic to American government, and he uses self-financed movies and self-published books to spread his message. And he appears to have stopped making movies about five years ago.

Perhaps cTom is a particular kind of contemporary American visionary, or maybe he’s a crackpot. (Probably both.) To help get to the bottom of it, I appeared on a Christian movie review podcast, Boys’ Bible Study, to discuss one of cTom’s films, The President Goes to Heaven. You can listen to it here:

In 2018, I wrote a story for a website called Splice Today about cTom/Tom Charley. This is an expanded version of that story, with some never before revealed information.

Lucy’s Law (2011). Kerry Bentivolio (left) and cTom

Lucy’s Law (2011). Kerry Bentivolio (left) and cTom

A camera captures suburban Michigan through the windshield of a slowly moving automobile. Titles appear on the screen, hovering above a dirty dashboard and rusted windshield wipers as a dramatic score (credited to Maestro Mohammad Nejad) plays in the background.

CTOM LLC PRESENTS
A ZERO BUDGET MOVIE PRODUCTION
A CTOM FILM
STARRING LAUREN CULLUM
LUCY’S LAW

A battered old minivan pulls up to a brick house and its driver exits. Apparently, he’s supposed to be a TV newscaster, barking orders at the camera crew off-screen. He almost looks directly into the camera, telling the unseen crew which shots to get, as a man wearing headphones steps into frame and nods vigorously. The acting is stiff and unnatural, and the composition is unlike any I have ever seen in a Hollywood film.

Lucy’s Law was directed, written, shot, and edited by an auteur who calls himself Tom Charley, but his fans know him as cTom. The film has all the hallmarks of outsider cinema, earning comparisons to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room and the works of Neil Breen. But unlike Wiseau or Breen, the message of Lucy’s Law is deeply disturbing. The director definitely has a message, but it’s hard to tell exactly what that message might be. Is he Islamophobic or anti-Semitic, or both? Is his film an expose’ of Pizzagate-style child sex trafficking and the corrupt American criminal justice system that enables it? All these are possibilities, but the film isn’t really coherent enough to convey any of that with any certainty.

The plot revolves around Lucy Baylor, who was kidnapped on her way to school when she was 11 years old, then spent the next two decades living as a member of her captor’s family, eventually having his children. The backstory can be described as Flowers In The Attic by way of Law and Order: SVU, but the manner of its telling (countless flashbacks and courtroom monologues) prevents the viewer from ever getting a real sense of what the hell might be going on.

The star of Lucy’s Law is Lauren Cullum, an environmental lawyer living in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the time of filming, Lauren was living in New York and pursuing a career in acting. She came across a casting call for the movie online and agreed to take the part for $900. The film was shot in the suburbs outside of Detroit, and Lauren’s involvement lasted all of three days.

“Honestly, it was awful,” Lauren says over Facebook Messenger (she declined a formal interview). “He overworked us, didn’t pay us, and acted like a crazy person.”

There are a few commonalities among the stories that cTom’s actors tell (and I’ve spoken to more than a half dozen of them). He doesn’t show anyone the complete script. He doesn’t let his actors deviate from the lines as they are written. And throughout the shoot, he constantly changes his email address and phone number. To this day, Lauren has no idea what cTom’s real name might be.

“I have no clue,” she says. “The emails were with a David,” one of his many aliases. “I think he used Tom Charles when I was there in person.”

Driving to the airport for her flight home, cTom told Lauren he didn’t have the money he promised her for the shoot.

“I said I wouldn’t get out of the car until he paid,” Lauren says, so “he drove off with me still in this car. He refused to drop me off at the airport, which resulted in me calling the police while still in the car with him.” What followed was the kind of madcap comic action you’d wish cTom would incorporate into his films: “He kept circling the airport with two cop cars following us, and me crying on the phone with the cops.”

cTom eventually pulled over so she could make her flight. “The cops asked me a few questions, but I didn’t stick around because I needed to catch my flight and I just wanted to get out of there so badly. I’m not really sure what happened with him and the police.”

At some point cTom did mail her a check for $900, “but it bounced. And I had to pay the fee for it bouncing.”

Aside from the bounced check, Lauren says that she hasn’t heard anything about the film or cTom since she finished shooting Lucy’s Law in 2010.

“I didn’t even realize the film was ever finalized,” she tells me.

I feel bad that I have to be the one to break the news to her that yes, the film is available both on DVD and Amazon Prime.

“I haven't seen it,” she says, “but I'm assuming I'd feel pretty embarrassed if it came out how I imagine it did.”

source: Amazon Prime

source: Amazon Prime

Patrick Sarniak has a few acting credits to his name, including the lead role in cTom’s film Who Killed Aliyah? The IMDB summary is worth quoting in full, typos and all:

While investigating the disappearance of teen Aliyah , investigator Herzog comes across her photo on the Internet. This photo leads him to the Black Brothers Movie Studio. Using Dostoevsky type deductive logic, Herzog discovers that the lives of the Studio Boss and that of his own are intertwined with the life of Aliyah. There are several side stories. All the shenanigans that happen behind the Blue Doors of the Movie Studio will keep you amused. This is a Detective Story. Theme is Crime and Punishment. It is definitely a Suspenseful Drama.

“His mind works differently than the normal mind for thinking of things, and how to make the plot run,” Patrick says. “He’s got that more of a Kubrick appeal.” Patrick describes cTom as a particularly “strict” director. “He didn’t want method acting, at all. He basically wanted everything read word-for-word that was in the script.”

This makes sense, because one defining characteristic of cTom’s work is that all the dialogue sounds like it was written by someone with little grasp of the English language.

“I think he’s Pakistani,” Patrick tells me. “I think he might’ve mentioned it. I don’t remember, but I think he’s Pakistani.”

Indeed, Patrick thinks that a lot of what makes cTom’s movies seem odd might be chalked up to cultural differences. “He wanted to put this Bollywood song and dance routine in every movie,” he says. “No matter what the movie was about, somebody had to sing a song, or they had to do a dance, or something that was odd, to make the formula work for Bollywood. And I thought to myself that that was kind of odd, so I told him, you know, a song and dance, in this movie, I don’t know if it will work for it.”

There actually was a musical routine in Who Killed Aliyah? Far from being a “Bollywood” production number, this is a bizarre scene in which Katelyn Coffey, the film’s young star, performs some sort of strange dance for the benefit of a lecherous porn studio boss. I remember seeing “jazz hands” at one point during the routine, though I may be mistaken.

“I actually brought that movie over to a friend’s house when they were having a house party,” Patrick says. “They said yeah, we’ll watch that movie for the end of the night and see what it’s about, right? So about 10 or 15 of us sat down to watch that, and everybody laughed all the way up to the end,” Patrick laughs. “It was like, no one spoke at the end of the movie. It was almost like everyone went silent. [There was] all this talking and laughing during the whole thing until the end, then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘what the heck did I just watch?’”

In the end, he’s proud of Who Killed Aliyah?, which he calls an expose’ on child pornography. “I did it to show the bad part of an industry that basically effects everyone, and is hidden from everyone’s view.” He feels “honorable,” he says, “that at least something was done to try and sway people from going down that bad road.” He’s less sure of the portrayal of the porn studio exec whose over-the-top Jewishness is a thread that runs through the entire film.

“He had this, like anti-Semitist (sic) thing that was in there,” Patrick says.

I asked him if he thought the film was anti-Semitic.

“I thought about that. But Alex Kushner, who played the boss, he’s Jewish,” which presumably made the film less problematic. “If he’s doing it, he must think that there’s something more artistic to the value, or there’s a point that needs to be made here.”

Once you begin to understand that cTom is making “message” films, things begin to make a little more sense. His actors are not expected to portray fully fleshed-out human beings. Rather, the characters represent the basic ideological types that exist in cTom’s world. It’s more than appropriate that they should have all the depth of a John Galt or Howard Roark, and no more. And the fact that cTom’s films aim to speak truth to power might go some ways towards explaining his apparent paranoid streak.

One of the three cTom films that Patrick Sarniak worked on was an action thriller called The Last Hero. “It was never put out,” he says, because the production was targeted and shut down by the FBI.

I asked how he knew this.

“cTom asked me to find this person, this girl who was in the movie,” Patrick says. “This woman ended up in this group on the other side of the state [called] White Women for the Jihad Revolution.” Patrick says that he found pictures of this actress online, “dressed in fatigues and pink.” When Patrick reported his findings to cTom, the director told him to put an end to the investigation. “He said, stop looking for her. Don’t contact her. She’s probably FBI and she’s infiltrating our group.”

In The Last Hero, “the Twin Towers were being set up for an explosion by the security guards who worked there for years because they wanted to save the day, because the two buildings — 1 and 2 — outsourced their jobs. And planting phony explosives, to save the day.”

It’s this subject matter — the false flag, the World Trade Center — that made the film the subject of a modern-day COINTELPRO.

“Basically, the girl showed up for a few scenes,” he says, “to get deep enough into the movie and then disappear, just so the movie could not be finished.” With too much of the movie in the can to start over, cTom washed his hands of the film — and filmmaking — seemingly for good.

cTom plays congas in one of his famed Bollywood musical numbers

cTom plays congas in one of his famed Bollywood musical numbers

“I think he might have passed away,” said Alex Kushner, the Jewish star of Who Killed Aliyah?, when asked about cTom. “He made this movie six years ago, and he was in very poor health. Sixty-six, diabetic, he wasn’t on a respirator but he was fairly close to it, and he had other kinds of serious illness as well. I thought he was obese. So truthfully, I don’t think he’s alive.”

All in all, Alex says that his experience working with cTom was a good one, although he will admit that the production had “issues.”

“I took time to learn my lines, but he didn’t have a problem with people reading off a script. To me, that’s horrible. That’s not acting. It just made a mockery out of it.” But the script itself was “very good,” Alex said. “He writes a great script. He really does. But he doesn’t seem to care so much about the acting. He knows that the acting’s gonna be bad, and he knows other features of the film are going to be bad, like places where people were faking it, and the sound system was absolutely atrocious. He even said that he’s not even going to try to find a national distributor. He was interested, I think, in taking it to the film studios in India, where the market is so much different there. He could market a lousy film so much better there.”

I asked Alex what the message of the movie was.

“Well, I’m Jewish, and this didn’t really bother me. But it was about Orthodox Jews who were very, very bad men. And I didn’t have a problem with that, because they do that with Italians all the time. They go to church on Sunday, they’re very religious, they’re good friends with the priest and the Pope, and then they go back to killing people on Monday. And of course, this isn’t just the Jews and Italians, it goes across all different kinds of races.”

If the depictions of Jewish characters wasn’t a problem for him, other aspects of the production were.

“I didn’t really like that” there were underage girls on the set, he says. “I wanted them to be over the age of 18, but other people on the set stuck up for him and said it makes it more dramatic that way, when you have younger girls. Now, there was not even any touching, let alone anything else, no sexual harassment of any kind. Nobody said anything derogatory or anything. So there was not that issue.”

The film has all the hallmarks of a homemade porno (or so I’ve been told). Harsh lighting, bizarrely staged sets, and terrible acting all contributes to a movie that makes you feel dirty watching it. And this is before you factor in the underage actors from Craigslist.

Still, Alex says that the film has found some fans.

“Friends of mine said it was good,” for what it was. “I don’t think they were comparing it to regular Hollywood movies. I think it was just fun to watch. There’s a difference. I could watch a home movie that my relatives made and I could really enjoy it, but it’s obviously not a Hollywood movie.”

The President Goes to Heaven (cTom, far right)

The President Goes to Heaven (cTom, far right)

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When I ask Katelyn Coffey, the lead actress in Who Killed Aliyah?, if she thought that the film had any fans, she just laughed.

A 19-year-old college student living in Michigan, Katelyn says she was “probably about 12, maybe 13,” when she met cTom. “One of my friends who was into theater was going to the audition, and I just tagged along with her.” Not that it was much of an audition. “We met him at a Wendy’s, and we just kind of talked.”

On set, Katelyn describes the scene as “a little strange. He was a pretty strange person, to put it mildly.” At the very least, he seems to have had an odd sense of propriety. “He didn’t want my parents around a lot of the time, so he would always try to kick them out. And it was just kind of awkward sometimes. And he didn’t really seem to know what he was doing.”

And at one point, his lack of professionalism became truly problematic. “He posted this video on YouTube promoting the movie,” Katelyn says. “It was a video of me, but he labeled it as a porn star, so people who watched this video thought I was like this porn star getting interviewed, and it was really uncomfortable. Because that wasn’t the case at all, you know? And at the time I was 12, and I was terrified that someone was gonna think that I was a 12-year-old porn star, because he labeled it like that. So we got him to take that down.”

One wonders why, if the director’s behavior was so strange, his actors kept working with him.

“Well, just because I agreed to do the part,” Katelyn says. “It wasn’t like there was anything that he asked of me that I wasn’t comfortable with. It’s not like I had to do anything bad or dirty.” And she believed in the movie’s message. “He told me it was about human trafficking, which is a good thing to spread awareness of. So I just felt dedicated to the movie. It was a little weird, but it was important to stick with it.”

Kerry Bentivolio is a former Republican congressman from Michigan’s 11th district. He also had roles in two of cTom’s films: the newscaster in Lucy’s Law and a physician in The President Goes To Heaven.

“A bunch of friends and I,” he says, “we’re all pretty much retired, and not doing a lot during the summer.” One of his friends saw an ad on Craigslist looking for extras, and he thought it would be a fun diversion. “Kind of like a ‘buckets list,’” he explains.

As it turns out, Kerry Bentivolio is something of a well-known character in the state of Michigan. In addition to being a veteran of the Army (with tours in both Vietnam and Iraq), Kerry has done everything from operating a reindeer ranch to teaching high school.

“And I never got a complaint until I ran for office with an ‘R’ after my name,” he says, describing the negative press that he started getting after making a name for himself as a Tea Party candidate. He represented Michigan’s eleventh congressional district for one term beginning in 2013, and in 2016 he sought the vice-presidential nomination in the Libertarian party.

Kerry seems to be convinced that I am doing opposition research for the Democratic party. “I'm assuming you work for one of my opponents,” he tells me, more than once. I try to explain that I’m just a freelance journalist who is interested in the films of cTom, but even I have to admit that this explanation isn’t exactly plausible.

“They hire freelance journalists all the time,” he explains. “I was in a stupid movie, and your job is to make me look like a terrible person.”

If Kerry feels that he was burned by his association with cTom, you can’t blame him. His role as Chief Physician in the film The President Goes to Heaven has him attending to a fictional president who might resemble George W. Bush, if you were squinting and the TV was on the fritz. While the president lays in bed for nearly all of the film’s 105 minutes, a succession of ideological cutouts (and ethnic stereotypes) come into the hospital room to talk about what a horrible person the comatose president is. At some point, we are told that he was behind the 9/11 attacks.

“When I ran for office” in 2012, Kerry says, “they said I was a 9/11 truther because I was in the movie.” His establishment Republican opponent in the primary, who he refers to as “Fancy Nancy” Cassis, even went so far as to use clips from President in an attack ad.

“If you really believe the actor is the character he plays,” Kerry says, “never invite Anthony Hopkins to dinner.”

Kerry has his own ideas about what cTom is up to.

“He’s making movies and basically, he doesn’t pay anybody. He does these jokester-type, ridiculous movies, and he gives them to his friend, the editor, and then the editor gives him a bill, and he submits the bill to the state of Michigan, and the state of Michigan pays him to make that movie. And then he goes to India, and he shows those movies in India at ten cents a ticket.”

As it turns out, even when going on madcap ‘buckets list’ adventures, Kerry and his friends keep one eye peeled for wasteful government spending.

“One of the underlying reasons that we did this is because my friends and I are all conservative Republicans and we don't like the crony capitalists,” he explains. “You know, using taxpayers money to subsidize a business, to so-called ‘generate jobs.’ The film we were in we weren't paid for. We didn't receive any money. So, who makes the money?”

I find it hard to believe that anyone made any money.

I asked Kerry if has any idea how I could find cTom, to which he responded with a loud belly laugh: “When you find that out, let me know!”

This is what all of cTom’s actors say. There are a lot of people who would like to find out who cTom is, not the least of which are the people who have helped him make four movies.

More bizarre still is the story of the time that cTom ‘catfished’ Kerry after the latter lost his congressional seat to “foreclosure king” David Trott in 2016.

“This guy,” Kerry says, “he joined my Facebook page, right? He was in a Navy uniform.” His name was David Davis. The sailor said he was going to be in Michigan and that he wanted to meet up, so Kerry invited him over.

It was not long afterward that cTom paid Kerry a visit. As it turned out, cTom had assumed the identity of David Davis in order to get Kerry’s home address.

“I just tried to politely and respectfully tell the guy to get lost,” Kerry says. “I did not want to hang out with him anymore. I didn't want to actually talk to him anymore, because it created a lot of embarrassment. What he had to say, his advice that he wanted to give me about my future, [that] is not something I wanted to hear.”

Song of the Blind Girl

Song of the Blind Girl

Andrew Dawe-Collins, the star of Song of the Blind Girl (also known as Runaway Kidnapper), came into cTom’s orbit the way that most of his actors do. He answered an ad from a casting website, and was then invited to an audition at a fast food restaurant.

“The first warning sign that I would see today is that the casting call was at a Burger King,” he says. “I didn’t know any better then. The next time there’s a casting call at a Burger King, I’m not bothering.”

Writing on the social media movie site Letterboxd, an up-and-coming film critic known only as “Scumbalina” had this to say in their five-star review of the movie:

This film reaches a level of natural trashiness that auteurs like Giuseppe Andrews (Who I am obsessed with) can only aspire to. Deals with incest, kidnapping, pedophilia, human trafficking, teen pregnancy, teen barfing and dog eating. I wish more tasteless garbage like this existed.

Andrew, who says he saw the film on Amazon, has a slightly less nuanced opinion. “It’s terrible,” he says. “It’s pathetic.”

During the filming, cTom was elusive as ever. “You’d get like three or four different emails from him,” Andrew says, “all with different addresses. And the same with his phone number. You’d get three or four different phone calls from him and they’d all be different numbers.”

Perhaps the director was on edge because of his film’s subversive message. Song of the Blind Girl is about a veteran of the war in Iraq who is suffering from extreme PTSD.

“But later on in the script,” Andrew says, “you also found out that he was part of the CIA. And so some of the things he was asked to do sort of cracked him, and he lost his family” So he decided to create a new family back home, by kidnapping two “daughters.”

Andrew says he was deep into the script (which cTom characteristically teased out a little bit at a time) before he understood the true message of the film.

The director “really doesn’t like Americans very much,” he says. In the film, “America is the evil force in the world, and they do all this covert stuff and they affect all these people, and they never have to pay for any of the things that they do. So it had a decidedly anti-American theme to it.”

If he had to guess, Andrew would say that cTom was “probably” from India, “just because of his tendency to put music in everything, [to] make it like a true Bollywood kinda thing.” Andrew said that cTom’s manner of speaking was familiar to him from working in the automotive industry. “A lot of the Indian engineers that I work with,” he says, “had a lot of the same sort of translation of words and slang words” as cTom.

Andrew describes the same shambolic set as cTom’s other actors: no crew to speak of, a “very, very nasty” director, and underage actors.

“Whenever we had any of the kids on the set,” their mother was also on the set. “There was no way I was doing anything without mom there.”

According to Andrew, a couple weeks after the shooting of Blind Girl wrapped, cTom called him about another film he wanted to get rolling on. Apparently, the director was on a creative hot streak. Andrew turned down the role because cTom “wouldn’t let me see the script beforehand, that was the biggest thing. Because I just didn’t like the whole anti-American theme that he had, and the way that he treated the kids, so I said no. And I never heard from him again after that.”

In the years since Song of the Blind Girl, Andrew has gone on to make something of a name for himself in the independent film scene in Michigan. The area puts out a lot of genre films, “Red Box movies,” as Andrew says. “Usually, most of the people I play in these movies are not nice guys. I usually play the bad guy.”

I point out that Andrew seems like a really nice guy over the phone.

Playing the heavy “is the opposite of my nature,” he admits, “which makes it fun.”

I asked Andrew if he’d ever been contacted about his work with cTom before.

“I did get a call from CNN about him,” he says. A reporter was trying to track down the man behind Innocence of Muslims, the anti-Islamic short film that provoked violent demonstrations (and its share of Fatwas) worldwide in 2012. Judging by the subject matter and the production quality, it was a fair guess that cTom might be behind it. The film was actually made by an Egyptian filmmaker living in California named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. Andrew scoffs at the suggestion that cTom could have made a film that would incite mobs to riot, or earn him a Fatwa from Hezbollah.

“If [Song of the Blind Girl] was any good at all, and anybody who was an American saw it, they would be offended by the film and the anti-American message that the film is giving out. Luckily, it’s so bad nobody saw it.”

Selections from the bibliography of cTom

Selections from the bibliography of cTom

In addition to producing, writing, directing, and editing four feature films, cTom is a prolific author. He doesn’t seem to know how to correctly set up his author page on Amazon, so it’s hard to know exactly how many books he’s written, but my best guess is that the number is at least three dozen. In addition to adaptations of all his movies, he’s published a number of novels, including Pedophile Priest, the description of which sounds a lot like the contemporary QAnon conspiracy theory (in this case, cTom was on the cutting edge: his pedophile book was published in 2014). He’s also published his own study bible, which he calls the True Believers’ International Version. The man is prolific.

cTom’s productions are so inept, and the themes that he repeatedly strikes so strange, that his films are truly unlike anything else. The plots all revolve around the same obsessions: Middle East terrorism, anti-Semitism, sex trafficking, and drug abuse. They’re transmissions from another reality, hopelessly broken yet incredibly compelling. Watching a cTom movie is as close as you’ll ever get to mainlining the worldview of the angriest denizens of 4chan.

As I was wrapping this story up, I discovered the website of the American International Film Festival, a strictly small-time contest for Michigan filmmakers (Song of the Blind Girl won the award for Best Feature in 2011). The website has been defunct since at least 2014, but using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I was delighted to find a group picture of several film festival attendees, including a man who I suspected could be cTom. I sent the picture to Andrew and Patrick, both of whom confirmed that my suspicion was correct.

Seven people are standing in the lobby of a theater. A large, brown man is positioned in the center, with his hand on another guy’s shoulder. A number of women stand to either side of the men. The picture is posed, but not professionally so—nobody here seems comfortable in front of the camera. They’re all smiling. It looks like a bunch of people who took the day off work, perhaps called a babysitter, and headed to Ann Arbor for an all-too-rare outing. It looks like they’ve just experienced that special joy that can only be had when you’ve put countless hours into your own amateur film and you’ve finally seen it screened, for the first time, in an actual movie house.

The photo isn’t captioned, but the names of each of its subjects are contained in the filename. To the left of the man are Eden, Kim, and Christian. To the man’s right are Irma, Elizabeth, and Daphine. Standing in the middle, towering over everybody else, is the subject of this story. I'm still not sure of his real name, but at last, I’ve seen his face. He’s smiling. He’s listed, simply, as “Director.”

cTom (center) enjoys the fruits of his labor

cTom (center) enjoys the fruits of his labor