Among Us: the too-close-to home terror of Mister Organ

A powerful, funny, and very important film

Among Us: the too-close-to home terror of Mister Organ

The reviews all seem to agree: Mister Organ, the newest film from journalist David Farrier, is disturbing. It’s strange. It’s unsettling. It’s funny. It’s very, very good. Having seen it myself at a Q&A screening last night, I can definitely attest to how  creepy the film is. But the depth of the creepiness — and the genius of the film — goes a lot further than it’s easy to explain in a normal review, so I’m going to try another way.

Among Us

A few years ago, long enough now that distance has taken the bleeding edges off the event, my mum and stepdad got in some terrible trouble. At the time, they lived on Russell Island in Moreton Bay, near Brisbane. The island is, and remains, one of the strangest places I have ever been. I’ll write about it at length, one day. For now, it’s enough to say that despite many promises and plans, Russell Island has never had a bridge to the mainland. The only way to get there is by ferry, and this inconvenience meant real-estate prices on the island weren’t soaring the way they were elsewhere around Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Mum and her partner were desperate to sell their house, another piece of land they owned on the island, and get away before prices on the mainland got too far out of reach. And one day, they met someone who said he could help.

His name was Zach Mar, and he — with some help from a local woman — had created a scheme called Display Partners. The idea was, very loosely, that you’d give Display Partners money, and they’d work with a builder who’d use your investment to build a display home, at a very low cost. The builder would rent the home from you and show it to potential clients, and after a few years, you’d have a beautiful home that you could move in to or rent.

A screenshot from the website of Display Partners, a defunct real-estate scam. The picture depicts a young white man and woman sitting on a couch, each doing a fist-pump
A screenshot of the defunct Display Partners site, as archived by the Wayback Machine. Just look how happy those stock footage models are!

Sounds good, right?

Perhaps a little too good?

You know where this is going.

I only found out about my mum’s involvement with Display Partners through unnerved reports from my brothers, and Mum’s own Facebook posts. Those were the first warning signs. When I asked her about it she was uncharacteristically cagey. Something seemed off, so I got digging.

A year or few earlier, I’d picked up some odd skills from hanging around a motley group of people I knew online and IRL. We’d recently become obsessed with a rapidly-deepening rabbit hole on the topic of “Competitive Endurance Tickling.” Comprised of David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, me, and a several other people, the Tickle Friends would unearth a lot of the material that ended up in the documentary Tickled. Now, I put what I’d learned about internet sleuthing to use, prying into Display Partners.

I learned that Zach Mar aspired to a playboy lifestyle, with a yacht and other rich-guy amenities, and that he ran charity events for disabled children. That he’d only recently arrived in the Bay Islands, that he’d convinced many people into investing in Display Partners. That he used several other names, all variations on the Zach Mar theme, and that no-one seemed to know who he really was or where he came from.

And I found that he’d run real estate scams all over Australia.

I was terrified for my mum. I let my brothers know what I’d found and called her. To my dismay, she was angry, and distant. She implied that I didn’t trust anyone, that she’d known I would try to interfere. But during the call she let slip that my sister and her partner had got involved. The idea was that Zach, a real-estate genius, would help them buy a house.

I nearly booked a ticket to Australia on the spot, which would have taken all the money I had at the time. Instead, I called my sister, who didn’t sound pleased either.

“They’re just helping us buy a house!” she said. “Zach knows so much about it, you should hear him talk. He knows a way we can do it without having to pay all this money up front.”

“That’s fine!” I said. “If he’s just helping you get through the process of buying a house, there’s no trouble! The important thing is that you don’t try to get around the law, or give him any money up front.”

My sister went silent.

“Have you given him any money?”

She didn’t say anything. I panicked.

“These people are evil!” I yelled. “They’re scammers. Don’t give them a single cent. If you give them money, you’re going to lose it all! You have to believe me!”

I shed a few angry tears after the call. I didn’t know what else to do. I was sure my sister had given these people her money, and that they would steal it. But what if I was wrong and had wildly overreacted, slandering someone who was actually trying to help my sister out?

It wasn’t until months later, when I finally made it over to Australia for a visit, that I learned what had happened.

My sister had indeed trusted the people behind Display Partners with some money. After another panicked call, this time from my brother, my sister got in touch with the woman Zach Mar was working with, and demanded the money back.

That wouldn’t be possible, the woman said.

I wasn’t present, but I know what happened next. I’d witnessed my sister get properly angry a few times as a kid. I was older than her by two years, but I got the hell out of the way when it happened. She turned into a fucking Valkyrie, all ice and fury and razor edges.

She told the woman that if the money wasn’t back in her account by the following morning, they’d be hearing from her workplace’s extremely competent and high-priced lawyers. She hung up.

The money was back in her and her partner’s account by the deadline. The amount: their life savings. An entire house deposit.

This event was a domino that helped topple the Display Partners scam, as it did indeed turn out to be. I could go on for a whole documentary’s worth of madness and skullduggery, but I’ll just give you the finale. My mum couldn’t brook the threat to her daughter and told Display Partners she wanted out too. They turned nasty. Battle lines were drawn: believers versus skeptics, with believers terrified that the scrutiny from skeptics would torpedo their investments. The tight island community seethed at each other. Lawyers, journalists, state officials, and detectives all got involved.

Mum and her partner eventually got out, having lost a few thousand dollars. They escaped with some of their savings, and their house. Others were not so lucky. A number of people — mostly older, mostly retired — lost everything they had.

Afterward, my family and I put things together again. My sister was grateful. My mum was too, but she and her partner felt terrible shame over the episode. “We just feel so stupid,” her partner told me. But they weren’t. They were trustworthy, kind people, which made them think other people would be trustworthy too. The scammers took full advantage.

Zach Mar disappeared.

Despite some real effort, I never managed to speak to Zach or see him in person. After he vanished, the closest we got to closure was a rumour that he’d crossed the wrong people and got beaten to a barely-alive pulp. Hearing this made me feel sick. I wanted to see him pay, but not like that. Real life is messy. It doesn’t often offer satisfying endings.

I’d always meant to write a proper story about this, but for a long time it felt too close. Gradually, I let it go, along with the thought of writing it up. Then I watched Mister Organ, and it brought the whole terrible episode roaring back.

You don’t just watch Mister Organ. The character is described as a void, and that’s the thing with voids: they watch you right back. Don’t misunderstand — the film is really funny, full of the kind of odd folly that can’t help but make you crack up. It got more audience laughs than a lot of comedies. But it stays with you in a way that’s not comfortable. Leaving the theatre, I felt like I’d come away from Mister Organ with a little bit of Michael Organ in my head. Lurking, peering, giggling, talking.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Michael Organ talks a lot. Like, three hours at a time, without stopping. Of course, this isn’t in the film, which lasts a swift 95 minutes. (At the Q&A, I was tempted to ask if there’d be a DVD extra that’s just footage of Michael Organ talking non-stop, for three hours. David, if you’re reading this, this is a really good idea and you should do it.)

The talking at length thing fascinated me. After the film, I thought about all the other times I’d seen similar behaviour. Marketing copy for sketchy products on weird websites that go on forever. The endless screeds of QAnon and anti-vax conspiracy theorists. The droning babble of scammy pastors and preachers. “Nigerian” 419 scam emails filled with capslock and dubious claims of royalty. Tickled star David D’Amato’s ranting, furious, constant emails, and the many websites he created, full of wild claims and slander.

Talking at length in this way is not just something that scammers do because they love the sound of their own voices (although that’s part of it). Dismissing it as ranting is a mistake, because con-artists do it for a reason. If you find yourself being talked at in this way, there is a chance you are a mark. You are being tested, probed, winnowed. 419 scam emails are long and loaded with nonsense to filter out skeptics. If you still maintain any belief by the end of one of their rambling screeds, they’ve got you. Even if you’ve never read a scam email, you’ve seen this behaviour before — in the strange, rambling, self-obsessed droning of the incredibly dangerous narcissist who starred in The Apprentice and would later serve time as the 45th President of the United States.

Zac Mar loved to talk too, my mum told me. He’d come and drink her tea and coffee and talk and talk and talk. The people he preyed on thought he was a real-estate genius who was going to either help take away their troubles, or make them some much-needed money. Mister Organ reminds me of him, and of the fact that there are Mister Organs everywhere.

It’s this that makes Mister Organ the most powerful film I’ve watched in a long time. Everyone should see it. It’s a case study in disturbance, and an explainer on how dangerous people operate, how they prey on others. How they’re so hard to pin down, so hard to stop. It’s also a brilliant example of journalism done right, of its remarkable power to shine a light in dark places, to protect the innocent, to give dignity to victims — and to warn the unwary.

I wish the film had come out ten years ago, and that my mum had seen it back then. Witnessing Organ’s tactics and the effect he has on other people might have saved her a world of hurt. Instead, I’ll settle for telling you to watch Mister Organ as soon as you can.

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