'Mormons' maker defends film
And she stands by refusal to label LDS and non-LDS
By Carrie A. Moore
Deseret Morning News
Responding to pointed questions about her recent PBS documentary, "The
Mormons," filmmaker Helen Whitney said Friday the criticism she gets
most is over her insistence not to label the people she interviewed on
camera as either Mormon or not.
It was a conscious choice, she said, "and I stand by it.... I wanted
each of you to listen with your heart and not give anyone more or less
credence because they were Mormon or not," she told hundreds of people
attending the annual meetings of the Mormon History Association in the
Salt Lake Hilton.
Whitney said she has talked to many non-Mormon friends who watched the
documentary and told her, "I wasted so much time because I didn't know
whom to trust" — which she said was "precisely the point."
Countering that built-in skepticism by failing to provide labels
required audiences to listen carefully before making a judgment about
credibility, she said, adding that she has had the same criticism from
members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The four-hour, two-part documentary aired nationally on PBS's
"American Experience" and "Frontline" last month, generating
record-breaking television ratings for KUED in Utah and substantial
viewer interest across the nation because of Mitt Romney's bid for the
GOP presidential nomination.
When asked what she would have included in her film if she'd had
another hour, Whitney didn't hesitate: "An entire act of faith stories
— of people who came to the faith, had questions about it, stepped
back from it and, in some cases, are returning to it," she said.
She interviewed more than 1,000 people for the project, many of whom
had poignant stories to share about their intersection with a religion
that is widely misunderstood, and which some feel misunderstands them.
Talking with a woman who had left the faith with her scholar-husband,
Whitney asked her how she felt, and "she couldn't stop weeping for 10
minutes," because she realized "I had lost my compass" in life. "I
didn't believe and I couldn't go back," the woman told her, adding
that "every single day of (my) life, (I) ache for it."
The standing-room-only audience viewed a segment of the documentary
titled "Exiles and Dissenters," featuring University of Utah classics
professor Margaret Toscano talking about the details of her
excommunication from the faith more than a decade ago for writings
advocating that women should hold the church's priesthood.
Brief remarks by President Boyd K. Packer and Elder Dallin H. Oaks of
the church's Council of the Twelve were also featured in the segment,
who said that the church has the right to sanction members who
publicly advocate positions in opposition to church teaching.
Afterward, two academics with differing views responded about the segment.
Mario DePillis, emeritus professor of history at the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst, lauded it as "one of the best documentaries
ever done on any religion." But he said Whitney's underlying theme for
that segment — that Mormons don't confront their history — "is a
half-truth" because Mormon historians "conscientiously try to confront
the messy aspects of it."
He questioned Whitney's use of imagery during the segment when Toscano
was speaking about her excommunication. It showed a dark, empty room
with old wooden chairs lined up opposing a single chair. The image
"reminded me of the Darrow Monkey Trial," he said.
Several in the audience questioned Whitney about other visual images
they found disconcerting. She said she used them as "visual metaphors"
for what people she interviewed felt, rather than as actual depictions
of a physical reality.
Richard Bennett, a professor of church history at Brigham Young
University, said the film "missed the opportunity to be balanced and
accurate" regarding intellectual debate and criticism within the
church. He said being a Mormon intellectual is not synonymous with
being a dissident and panned the idea that Latter-day Saints follow
their leaders blindly.
Also, Mormons should not be judged by what happened during the
Mountain Meadows Massacre 150 years ago "any more than Catholics
should be judged by the Inquisition" or "Muslims by terrorist
extremists," he said.
Whitney responded that in her interviews with people across the
spectrum from deep faith to disbelief, she encountered many LDS
intellectuals who have "considerable fear of touching on third-rail
issues" that they shy away from because "it's not worth what might
"I heard a lot of that, and I don't think that's a spiritually healthy
environment. I've had conversations with many who love this church but
have fear," she said.