Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 21, 2021 4:11 pm 
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AN FLDS CHURCH FAMILY POSING FOR A PHOTO PORTRAIT IN KEEP SWEET

TRAILER

Filmmaker shows a Mormon cult attacked from inside and outside

Don Argott's documentaries, such as The Art of the Steal (NYFF 2009) and Framing John DeLorean (2019), openly reject objectivity and show a penchant for siding with someone he thinks has been wronged. Something akin to this pattern pops up again in his new film about a branch of the extreme Mormon FLDS Church (The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) with the addition that he injects himself as an observer whose coolness turns to sympathy over a period of years. This, however, seems a story whose considerable complexity might have emerged more clearly had Argott organized his film more tidily and kept himself out of it.

As a Wikipedia article informs us, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints dates from the early 1900's and is a particularly large fundamentalist Mormon sect organizing Mormons excommunicated for refusing to abandon the practice of poygamy (even though some polygamy may be still practiced in the Utah-based home church, if we are to believe "Big Love"). Argott's focus is on a settlement of the FSLDS in Colorado City, Arizona, which he comes back to ten years later. Argott's film does not tell us about the polygamy. He doesn't tell us that the sect also has settlements in British Colombia, North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Texas.

Nor does he mention that the FLDS Church, according to the Wikipedia article, was designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, citing leader Warren Jeffs' "opinions on 'blacks, women, gays, violence and the end of the world' and calling it 'a white supremacist, homophobic, antigovernment, totalitarian cult.'" It seems, in part at least, strange that Argott ultimately adopts a huggy, affectionate attitude toward some FLDS members, especially young ones, given that he describes his car being stoned and spit upon by some of them when he first came in.

This film doesn't specify dates but it appears from the Wikipedia article, Warren Jeffs, that the man, whom we see in some brief film clips, reigned as prophet or leader of the FLDS only from 2002 to 2007 after his father the previous leader died; but did irreparable damage to the community and committed serious personal crimes. Testimony from talking heads indicates that he reigned as an arbitrary dictator. There was already no individual ownership of property. Houses or buildings collectively built were wholly owned by the church. Jeffs was ruthless with individual males and rapacious with women, shifting people around and thus destroying the integrity of families or expelling them from the community at will as punishment. High walls were erected around properties out of paranoia. The mood became so grim the word "fun" was not allowed. Jeffs' raping of young teenage girls led to his going on the FBI Most Wanted List and now currently serving a life sentence in prison.

One of the key talking heads is a young man who fled, but later returned, and reports that he has a rare disease of which he is dying; he is in a hand-operated wheelchair. According to him, life when he was growing up before Warren Jeff's regime was blissful and free, then became a living hell, but after Jeff's departure despite ravaging from outside may have a future again. Argott reports on and films a small group of teenage boys who were expelled and lived together elsewhere. One in particular he follows on a return visit showing how he was welcomed lovingly by siblings. Another later dies of a drug overdose.

Two middle-aged women of the cult, with gray hair in the approved FLDS "do," and long cotton dresses of neutral hue, constantly reappear in the film as the most uncritical talking heads who find nothing ever wrong either before or after the reign of Warren Jeffs. One claims that nothing Jeffs did was bothersome, though, she says, people who are immoral are "asked to leave." Other, moderate speakers emphasize that Warren Jeffs tore apart their settlement and destroyed its life in every aspect, nothing remaining "intact." At the same time, the end of Warren Jeffs' regime leads to the return of former exiles.

After Jeffs' arrest the authorities came in and tried to remove a lot of the children into outside adoption on the grounds that they were being raised in an unhealthy environment, but some fled from this. Subsequently also we glimpse many of the formerly thriving and valuable propertiesof the Arizona FLDS being demolished after members have been expelled from them by authorities and they have been taken over by the state. A non-SLDS Mormon woman who has moved to the areea explains that this has happened simply because the inhabitants have refused to pay taxes or sign any legal documents. An organization that refuses to conform with state laws is inevitably regarded as an outlaw body. A group that refuses to pay taxes, cooperate, vote, or participate in the outside community is in trouble.

Argott, who keeps reappearing, emphasizes a halcyon, kind, loving side to the settlement, and he who was originally stoned now gets hugged. Outside authorities' ravaging of the settlement indeed does appear to be a shocking and sweeping violation of human rights, and we can understand Argott's sympathies being with the FLDS people he has gotten to know and like when this happens. But his coverage of this turbulent recent history, while the richness and color of scenes filmed here may have benefitted from his being "embedded for over a decade" as the trailer claims, also lacks three-dimensionality because outside views, even those of mainstream Mormons, are not heard. A thoroughgoing history and exposé of the FLDS settlements like Alex Gibney's 2015 Scientology and the Prison of Belief has yet to be made.

Keep Sweet, 144 mins., had no festival presentations. It goes on the internet on the discovery+ channel Nov. 24, 2021.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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