SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — PBS is keeping a tight lid on the forthcoming four hours of documentary television that it is calling “The Mormons” — due to air on April 30 and May 1 on the PBS network.
Very few people outside of PBS itself have seen excerpts, and their reactions vary depending on what they have seen as well as their prior expectations.
The documentaries — two hours on American Experience on April 30 and a further two hours the following evening on Frontline — constitute what is believed to be the most searching look at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in US television history.
Award-winning television producer Helen Whitney describes it as “a complex film, a respectful film, but not an uncritical film.”
Among hundreds of people interviewed for the film were Church leaders, historians, academics, active members, former members and critics. They address a wide range of topics, from the foundation of the Church through to its worldwide operations today.
Helen Whitney told the Deseret Morning News that one of her prime objectives was to remove stereotypes of the Church.
“I hope that most of the stereotypes — ideally, all of them — will be blown away,” she told the newspaper. “Because so many of them are just based on ignorance. Ignorance about Mormon history, ignorance about Mormon theology. Ignorance.”
Whitney said that the Church had responded favorably to requests for access to Church leaders and Church premises.
“The Church did not endorse the film. I had total independence,” she said. Church officials had no role in scripting, filming, financing, or approving the content of the production.
A few scholars, including some who appear in the documentary, have seen substantial parts of the program.
Their initial reaction: Church leaders and members are extraordinarily eloquent in explaining the tenets of their faith. The film is not superficial, which is often a criticism leveled at television coverage.
However, some raised concern about what they feel is a disproportionate amount of time given to topics that are not central to the Church’s faith. For instance, polygamy comes in for extensive treatment in the first program, including substantial attention to present-day polygamous groups that have nothing to do with today’s Church. The time devoted to portrayals of modern fundamentalist polygamy seems inconsistent with the filmmaker’s stated purposes of getting inside the LDS experience, and of exploding, rather than reinforcing, stereotypes.
Other scholars criticize what they say is an imbalance in the treatment of some topics, particularly the events at Mountain Meadows in 1857. One said the film provides a distorted and highly unbalanced account of Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre alike.
Michael Purdy of the Church’s Public Affairs Department has followed the Whitney documentary closely for the past three years.
“The big question that members of the Church are asking is whether these programs will come close to capturing the essence of how Latter-day Saints define and see themselves,” he said.
“Will members look at these films and say, ‘yes, that’s me.’ Or will they look at it and say, ‘even after four hours, they missed the point.’ It comes down to both content and context and it is important that those closest to the faith see themselves in the portrayal.”
Either way, extensive post-broadcast discussion of the programs in the news media and on blogs is likely at a time that the Church is already a topic of rising media interest. The Church expects to participate in those discussions through its Newsroom web sites and also in public media forums.