Sons of Perdition, a documentary that premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, follows the story of a group of teenage boys who have left the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamous Mormon group, and tracks their struggles in exile from their homes and families.
Many first learned of the FLDS when the sect came into the media spotlight following leader Warren Jeffs’ arrest (and eventual conviction) as an accomplice to rape. Pictures of young women in “prairie dresses” were splashed on TV and the media rushed to try to explain who these people actually were. Were they Mormons? Were they a cult?
I had planned an interview with the film’s directors, but before I met them I went to RD contributor Joanna Brooks, a Mormon writer and scholar, to help me get some context. She described the FLDS sect as “the most extreme of several fundamentalist Mormon polygamous groups,” distinguished by their focus on a “prophet” who plays an extremely commanding role in the life of the community. As she explains it, while fundamentalist LDS and mainstream LDS share a common history, scripture, and basic theology, the LDS church banned polygamy in 1890 and the groups who continued the practice split off early on. Consequently, she explains, “many of their beliefs reflect the general state of Mormon doctrine at that time—before the modern LDS church grew into the global church it is today.”
In addition, while polygamy as a doctrine has not been entirely abolished in mainstream LDS (some modern orthodox LDS followers believe there will be polygamy in the afterlife), for fundamentalist and FLDS folks, because polygamy has been rejected by mainstream Mormonism and punished by the state, it has become the defining and central expression of faith.
At the Tribeca Film Festival, I sat down with directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten for an in-depth discussion about their documentary.
How did your background as Mormons influence the making of this film?
Tyler Measom: We both were active Mormons. I served on a mission for the LDS church for two years. Our families are still active in the LDS church. In our early twenties, we reached the conclusion separately that it wasn’t right for us. It was a struggle and very difficult, especially living in Utah. Leaving one’s religion is much more than not just going to church on Sunday when you have a church such as the LDS faith, which is part of a community and family. Without knowing it, Jenny and I were helping a lot of people who were looking to leave. They would come to us and ask questions and we were able to help them through the process.
Jennilyn Merten: When we met the kids, we really got their story. They were like, “Oh wow, you left too.”
How did you maintain your objectivity while filming this documentary?
TM: I think any documentary filmmaker walks that line between objectivity and being a human being. There were times when we became really ingrained in their lives. These kids looked to us almost as surrogate parents in a lot of ways.
JM: The social workers were asking us to help them. So we became sort of mediators between the social workers and the kids. And there were times when the law was not doing its job. After, say, five attempted escapes by a 14-year-old girl who was about to get married and nobody was protecting her, then yeah, you cross the line and you do the right thing. Then you have to stand back and see how that affects your story. It’s a really tough road but we felt like that this was the type of story that had to be told with this amount of intimacy.
TM: For instance, if the kids want desperately for their mother—who is in a polygamous relationship with an abusive husband—to get out, and you love these kids, the last thing you want to be known of is the person who set up the camera while someone was screaming “help me” from a building on fire.
JM: Stories are two-sided. When someone is sharing their story with you, you don’t get to just sit there and be like an automaton and not react. There has to be some reciprocity there to a certain point. When you start manipulating the story, then that’s a different thing.
When filming this documentary, how did you distinguish between a religious sect whose members practice polygamy as consenting adults versus a sect like the FLDS that involves minors?
JM: You can allow for freedom of religion, but you have to protect its youngest practitioners like those girls who are forced into a marriage, or the boys who were exiled and left to fend for themselves on the streets.
TM: Also, there’s a titillation factor to doing a story about polygamy. One man, seven wives; people are mainly interested in that and not the other improprieties.
JM: Warren Jeffs was ruining them financially and psychologically as well. By the time he was arrested, he was requiring $1,000 a week from every male household leader. He told them to quit working on their own homes and families and put everything into the church. They were being bled dry financially and manipulated. But some of this is a little bit harder to fight when the people being victimized don’t want to be help. Then you look for a legal method that you can use to bring them down.
TM: Yes, these kids have been victimized but that’s all their family has known for generations. So they don’t look at their parents as the villains but just people who were following Warren Jeffs’ orders.
JM: The kids pin this on Warren Jeffs. What we try to do is to show this really sticky web that they’re all interconnected by.
How did Warren Jeffs change this community?
TM: The community has been there for over a hundred years and for most of that time they lived in relative obscurity and kept to themselves. It was a very communal community with people working together building each other’s homes. There were still forced marriages but they were working very nicely until Warren Jeffs came in and claimed ultimate power. If Warren Jeffs had not come to power, it’s very likely that those boys would still be living there with their families.
The treatment of this sect by law enforcement and the media seems to have further solidified this community.
TM: The nuances with a lot of these extremists, especially the FLDS, is that the more you fight them, the more they believe they’re right. And the more tyranny they get, the more they feel God is smiling upon them.
JM: It’s a martyr complex. It works very well for them.
In telling this story, how do you combat this martyr complex?
TM: With a pin hammer and not a sledge hammer. I think you can’t attack. You just have to be ready when it dissolves. Because in essence, it’s not the religion you’re trying to bring down. You’re doing it to try to help an individual within it. And if you truly want to help the individuals within it, you try to bring them out and have support for them when they do leave.
JM: Well you can’t put all the men in jail and get rid of the whole society. That’s the wrong approach. So you have to enforce what you can, which is what Utah is doing by targeting underage marriages, child abuse, and sexual abuse. Then, you provide resources for people who want to leave. It’s complicated because it’s a psychological jail and it’s hard to break through those bars.
When these kids chose to leave, they aren’t just leaving the FLDS but their families as well.
TM: Families are very, very important in so much they believe that they’re a family in the next life. That’s why it’s very difficult for the head of the household in the Mormon faith to lose one because you’re not just breaking up the family in this life but in the next life as well.
JM: Because family is so important, my parents made the decision not to ostracize my sisters and me when we chose to leave. We hope that ultimately because family is such a strong bond in the FLDS as well, they will choose family over Warren Jeffs.
How has the audience at the Tribeca Film Festival reacted to these kids when they speak after the screenings?
TM: People came up to them afterward in tears, saying ‘your story affected and changed me.’ Despite the fact that it’s very difficult for them to talk about their past and that it may put more strain upon their community and their families, they know they are helping out for the greater good. They can see the bigger picture.
JM: And we’ve given them some survivor memoirs like What Is the What and Angela’s Ashes so that they fit into a tradition of storytelling and sharing their life story.
Finally, how did working on this documentary inform your own faith?
JM: For me, it has made me more curious and sympathetic about the concept of faith and the power of belief. We weren’t going to tell a good story just by creating a diatribe against religion, but by knowing we have to look at religion and faith with more inquisitiveness. That doesn’t mean we excuse its crimes, but faith itself is a really powerful call. And if we aren’t going to investigate that with some thoughtfulness, then more crimes will be committed because all we’re going to do is point fingers.