Wednesday, January 17, 2007
PBS 4 hour production on "The Mormons"
Deseret Morning News, Sunday, January 14, 2007
'The Mormons' on PBS takes aim at stereotypes
By Scott D. Pierce
Deseret Morning News
PASADENA, Calif. — Award-winning filmmaker Helen Whitney has one
over-arching goal for her four-hour production "The Mormons," which
airs this spring on PBS.
"I hope that most of the stereotypes — ideally, all of them — will be
blown away," she told the Deseret Morning News on Saturday. "Because
so many of them are just based on ignorance. Ignorance about Mormon
history, ignorance about Mormon theology. Ignorance."
The two-part, four-hour documentary, a presentation of both
"American Experience" and "Frontline" — their first co-production — is
to air nationally on April 30 and May 1.
After spending three years on the project, Whitney is well aware of
the stereotypes and ignorance that's out there.
"Most of the time when I bring up what I'm doing and I talk about it
with people, the first word that comes up is polygamy," she said.
Indeed, introducing the documentary to a gathering of television
critics from across the country, it took only moments for the subject
to be raised. It was addressed in the first question asked of Whitney
and a panel that included KUED's Ken Verdoia and authors Will Bagley
and Terryl Givens.
(And, interestingly, in addition to asking about the Osmonds,
television critics — learning that the men have Utah ties — assumed
all three are active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints; only Givens is.)
Whitney has no illusions that "The Mormons" will answer all
questions about the LDS Church.
"It is not exhaustive. It is not comprehensive. It is thematic,"
said Whitney, who worked with both LDS and non-LDS consultants. "I
have chosen what I felt to be the defining ideas and themes and events
in Mormon history that would help outsiders go inside the church."
It's not altogether chronological, but "roughly so."
The first night, on "American Experience," addresses LDS Church
history, with themes that include revelation, persecution leading to
exodus, polygamy and "the great accommodation" when the church
renounced plural marriage.
The second night, on "Frontline," deals with the modern church —
missionary work, family, temples, dissenters and "the extraordinary
transformation from a people who are outsiders and pariahs to the
mainstream. It is one of the great, neglected narratives of American
religious history," Whitney said.
Also timed to air in April in conjunction with the two-part
documentary are three "Antiques Roadshow" episodes filmed in Salt Lake
City, looking at memorabilia from the West and early days of the LDS
"The Mormons" is not a film about Utah. Whitney traveled across the
country, from New York to California; she sent a film crew to Ghana.
"Mormons are everywhere, and I wanted to make that point," she said.
"There are more Mormons outside of America than in this country. And
even within America, there are many Mormons outside of Utah. So only a
small part of it was shot in Utah."
She spent three years working on the film, interviewing "hundreds
and hundreds of people" ranging from LDS Church President Gordon B.
Hinckley to everyday church members to those who are openly
antagonistic toward the church.
She attended ward meetings and made visits with home teachers; she
spoke with people who had been excommunicated.
"The Mormons" will no doubt displease anyone who doesn't want to
hear a negative word about the LDS Church. At the same time, it's
going to anger those who don't want to hear anything good about it.
The LDS Church was "absolutely cooperative" in the making of the
film, said Whitney, an Emmy and Peabody Award winner who profiled
monks in "The Monastery," profiled John Paul II in "The Millennial
Pope" and looked at religion in the wake of terrorism in "Faith and
Doubt at Ground Zero."
"They had seen my films. They realized ... that I was not going to
approach them and be uncritical but I would be respectful," she said.
"And it would be an intelligent film and searching."
Whitney's goal is not to recruit people to become Mormons, nor is it
to discourage current or prospective members. She is hoping, however,
that "The Mormons" will prompt viewers to examine their own beliefs.
"I would also like them to take a deep and searching look into their
own religion and see the ways in which there are commonalities as well
as uniqueness and difference," she said. "I think that by looking into
the Mormon heart, you look into your own."