Nauvoo Temple Documentary Overcomes Obstacles to Air Widely on PBS Stations
Public television stations step gingerly when it comes to airing documentaries about religious topics, but this month more than 20 stations are planning to use Lee Groberg’s Sacred Stone: Temple on the Mississippi as part of their pledge drives to raise funds for their operations and more than 80 markets nationwide have agreed to broadcast the film. (See below for a listing of stations showing the film in March).
That is a noteworthy acknowledgement of the documentary’s success, since the PBS stations choose only their most compelling programming for pledge drives. When Sacred Stone aired in January in Fresno, California, it was the highest producer of all of their programs and last week’s showing at the Dallas PBS affiliate station brought in $33.000 in pledges. “They were ecstatic,” said Groberg. “On a scale of 1 to 5, they rated it a 5++. I was pleased.”
PBS stations respond to requests and calls from their viewing audience, so Groberg hopes the buzz about the success of Sacred Stone will filter through the system. Since PBS is audience driven, “strong viewership is a key to future programming for PBS stations,” Groberg noted. A thank you to program managers also helps.
Sacred Stone, which documents both the history of the Nauvoo temple and its rebuilding was an unexpected project for Groberg. He had already surprised executives at PBS with the phenomenal success of Trail of Hope, the story of the Mormon pioneers trek across the nation, and American Prophet, the history of Joseph Smith.
Because it coincided with the sesquicentennial of the Mormon pioneers arrival in the Salt Lake valley, Groberg’s first public television documentary on a Latter-day Saint topic, Trail of Hope, overcame the roadblocks to religious documentaries. It was, after all, the story of a large swath of 19th century American history, and the pioneer trek across the wilderness was being reenacted that year amidst great media hoopla and attention. Trail of Hope not only garnered many awards for excellence but broke viewing records across the nation. “People in Nashville and Los Angeles liked it. It was a pleasant surprise,” said Groberg.
“While they still remembered my name,” he said, “I pitched several new ideas to PBS. Of all my suggestions, the idea they gravitated toward was the Joseph Smith story, American Prophet. I warned them that this was a very religious story, and asked, ‘Do you have a problem with that?'” They told Groberg that he had done it before and they knew he could do it again. PBS reviewed the script and the rough cut of the film and made some suggestions, but overall, the film was what he wanted it to be. “We told the story as accurately and artfully as we could,” said Groberg. “It won numerous awards, but I think they went out on a limb just a bit to do the Joseph Smith story and I applaud them for their bravery.”
After these successes, Groberg decided that he was going to back off Mormon story telling for a while and do some other projects, many he had been thinking about for some time. “But when President Hinckley announced in that April, 1999 conference, that the Church would rebuild the Nauvoo temple, I felt compelled to do a film documenting its building. It was a powerful feeling that I had to do it.” He wrote the First Presidency asking if they had any objections to the project, and when they said they had none, Groberg set to work.
The sunstone is actually two pieces of stone, the face rising above what Brigham Young described as clouds, and two hands each holding a trumpet. The two pieces would have been shimmied into place on the top of the capitals using ropes, pulleys, and a crude crane.
“The Church was wonderfully cooperative to work with,” said Groberg. “It was not a Church project, not a Church-edited film. It didn’t go through correlation,” but Groberg and writer Heidi Swinton had support and access to materials.
Groberg also knew that documentaries are not designed for financial return, and so money had to be raised from generous donors who would profit only from the satisfaction of being part of seeing that a good story was told.
The film crew was there when the first shovel of dirt was scooped for the temple and recorded faithfully as the temple rose. They went to France to film the mouth-blown glass that went to recreate the 19th century look of the temple windows. They went to Egypt, Greece, and Israel to film remains of ancient temples and interviewed 50 experts in the tradition of temple building, the history of Nauvoo and the first and second constructions of the Nauvoo temple.
“The dilemma was how to tell the story of a people who are enamored with a temple, depict why it means so much to them, and yet not preach and not tread on any sacred points for the Church. We tried to be respectful and we would have that same respect for any church,” Groberg said.
In part they solved the challenge by talking historically about the significance of temples and sacred space, allowing scholars to discuss every aspect of the temple-building tradition.
Sacred Stone begins with an historical sequence, painting the story of a people so dedicated to their religion that they built and completed a temple fully knowing that they would abandon it. “We weave the life of the frontier town of Nauvoo, its beauty, its layout, its busyness and the jealousy that surrounded it which turned into murder and expulsion.” said Groberg. Their story is told through journal entries played against the backdrop of the new temple rising.
“My hope,” said Groberg, “was to build an emotional attachment to the building and have our hearts ripped out a little bit as the temple is sacked and burned and the new temple is built on its footprint. The religious intolerance of the 19th century is replaced by a kinder, gentler nation in the 20th and the temple is rebuilt. The people who were driven away in poverty come back gratefully to restore what they lost.
“I grew in respect and awe for these early pioneers. The Church was on a fast-track construction with the Nauvoo temple, yet we rebuilt the temple only in half the time that the first Saints had constructed it with their much tougher circumstances, their hand-quarried stone and the timber which floated down the Mississippi from Wisconsin. What a testimony of their conviction,” said Groberg.
The national PBS declined Sacred Stone at the point of the rough cut, which did not daunt Groberg because he had seen a few warning flags go up. He knew that public education stations get more flak about a program based on religion than any other thing.
He knew, too, that they considered this a narrow topic.
However, American Public Television, which provides programming for PBS stations accepted the documentary and now the number of markets it will appear in depend on viewer enthusiasm and requests. If you are interested in seeing Sacred Stone, call your local PBS station to request it or find out when it is scheduled. It is available in a 60 or 90 minute version.
A DVD of the documentary is also available at www.grobergfilms.com that features an additional 90 minutes of material not available in the documentary. “For instance,” said Groberg, “I was able to interview President Hinckley the day of the Nauvoo Temple dedication and used only a small clip for the documentary, but the interview was so good, I included the whole thing on the end of the DVD.”
The following PBS stations will be carrying Sacred Stone in March.