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PBS Frontline: 'The Mormons'

Helen Whitney
Producer, Director and Writer
Wednesday, May 2, 2007 11:00 AM

Producer Helen Whitney was online Wednesday, May 2 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her film " The Mormons," a Frontline/American Experience coproduction that explores both the history and the present reality of the Mormon faith, taking the viewer inside a compelling and often misunderstood religion.

" The Mormons" airs Monday, April 30, and Tuesday, May 1, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Whitney has been creating documentaries about religion since 1968. Her Frontline movies have included "John Paul II: The Millennial Pope" and "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero." She has won one Emmy and one Peabody, and been nominated for six Emmys and an Academy Award.

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Shafer, Minn.: I commend Helen Whitney for a wonderful and concise presentation of the Mormon faith. How difficult is it to balance the academic points of view with faith-based perspectives, considering that the subject matter itself is of a religious nature? Can faith-based beliefs be fairly analyzed and understood by secular debate?

Helen Whitney: Thank you for your perceptive comments. Yes it is extremely difficult to get inside a religion and understand something that is essentially ineffable: faith. As a filmmaker who is fascinated with faith and doubt, I struggle with this all the time. I think the best approach is minimal analysis, maximum imagery, music and personal stories. The great challenge is to get people to talk about these elusive subjects with poetry and precision.

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Lafayette, Calif.: There are a considerable number of comments on PBS.org that accuse you of being either too apologetic for or harsh on the Mormons. It seems to me that there was a concerted effort at balance. What was your philosophical approach to achieve such a balance?

Helen Whitney: Thank you for your perceptive remarks. Yes, I did try to achieve balance. I expected angry comments on the extreme edges and hoped for wisdom in the middle. I have not been disappointed.

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Pleasant Grove, Utah: I felt that your program was very biased and was quite disappointed with the choice that you made to spend most of your time interviewing excommunicated members of the church. I felt that sacred and spiritual aspects of the church were exploited and made light of. All in all, I felt that it was a waste of my time to view it and I'm hoping that those people who are investigating the church didn't see it.

Helen Whitney: The LDS Church has just published their response to our film on their Web site. I refer you to it: LDS.org. Their comments are largely favorable. In fact they considered it "a welcome change" from previous media coverage. I am sure that you will be pleased to hear this.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I watched the show over the past two nights, and found it well done and pretty balanced overall ... but like so many other parties examining Mormons there was an inordinate amount of time spent, I thought, talking about the Mountain Meadows massacre, polygamy and other topics that already figure high in the minds of the American public. Interesting that your show rightly acknowledged that certain topics seem to hog most of this faith's attention. Weren't you feeding into this?

Helen Whitney: I spent considerable time on these two areas (MMM and polygamy) because they are important in Mormon history and theology. Most people know very little about polygamy. They assume it was not social practice but are unaware that it was a spiritual principle of utmost importance to Mormons. It was essential to salvation and as the Mormon scholar, Kathleen Flake, points out, polygamy was as important to the Mormons as baptism was/is important to Christians. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a dark chapter in Mormon history. It has been generally treated in a sensational manner. What we tried to do -- and it took time -- was to provide the historical context. The years of persecution preceding the Massacre, the Utah War, the fact that President Buchanan had sent an army to Utah to remove Brigham Young as Governor. All these events created an inflamed atmosphere and paranoia that is essential to understanding -- though of course not excusing -- this terrible event.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: Why no mention of the role of LDS women in the suffrage movement of the nineteenth century?

Helen Whitney: I had only four hours to cover the entire history of the church. Inevitably, I had to leave out interesting and important details of Mormon history.

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Draper, Utah: Put me on the list of those Mormons who congratulate you on your project and the resulting four-hour documentary. Your weaving together of a wide range of perspectives has produced a powerfully compelling story of the Mormons from believers, nonbelievers and some somewhere in between. I believe my Church has faced and survived enough remarkably threatening crises that we should feel we can let down our guard enough to value your artful and perceptive, respectful but not uncritical portrait of our faith. The interviews you conducted are a great treasure. The transcripts of a number of them are available on pbs.org. Will others be made available? I am especially interested in your interviews with Harold Bloom and Dallin Oaks.

Helen Whitney: I hope that we will be able to include the Bloom and Oakes interviews. It is a good suggestion and I will recommend that we do so.

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Reston, Va.: Helen, thank you for making "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero." It raised as many questions as it answered in viewers' minds ... all thoroughly excellent questions that plumbed the very depths of faith itself. Simply awesome piece of work. I'm a 44-year-old male, and I choke back tears each time I watch it. Filmmaking at its most powerful. Thank you again.

Helen Whitney: Thank you for your kind words about "Faith and Doubt." It remains (along with "The Monastery") my favorite film. I am touched that people still write me about it.

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Allentown, Pa.: Why didn't you show the LDS affiliation (or non-LDS status) of those interviewed, which would have provided viewers with the "perspective" they were coming from. For example, most active Mormons do not know that Terryl Givens is LDS (and your documentary doesn't make that clear until Part 2). I agree that it probably doesn't matter to a non-LDS person, but it would matter to most LDS members watching it (who tend to discount the opinions of non-LDS academics and historians).

Helen Whitney: I decided not to label the religious affiliation of those being interviewed for the very reason you mentioned in your note to me. I wanted people to listen carefully and respectfully to each person -- and not automatically discount what people were saying because they were either LDS or not LDS. As you said, LDS folks "tend to discount the opinions on non LDS members and historians." This is a reflexive habit that prevents them (or anyone) from broadening their horizons.

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Alpine, Utah: What is your own personal feeling about Joseph Smith? Have you considered doing a piece focusing just on him?

Helen Whitney: Joseph Smith is a truly fascinating religious figure of epic size. He gives new meaning to the words complexity and contradictions. You would need ten hours to do him justice.

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Mesa, Ariz.: You have stated repeatedly that you only had four hours to work with. Than why did you choose the topics you did? Controversy? Ratings?

Helen Whitney: Did you watch the show? If you did, you might realize that I chose -- with the help and approval of many scholars -- the defining themes, events and ideas of Mormon history. Each act was focused on one of these themes. Revelation; Persecution; The Latter Day Saints; MMM, polygamy, The Great Accommodation, The Missionaries, Exiles and Dissenters; Family and The Temple. I can't believe that you could quarrel with any of these choices. They are essential. I suggest that you discuss your problems with Jan Shipps, the foremost Mormon scholar in America. To suggest that these choices had to do with ratings is incomprehensible.

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Selden, N.Y.: You were very careful to point out that present day Mormons don't practice polygamy, but you didn't mention that they still preach polygamy. It's still an important doctrine--only it's saved for the hereafter. Men can still be sealed to many women for the hereafter. This is an important Mormon doctrine. Why did you shy away from this?

Helen Whitney: You raise an important point. However, I didn't -- to use your phrase -- shy away from it. I simply had no time for it. Looking back, I wish I had been able to develop this important distinction between polygamy here and in the hereafter.

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Minden, Nev.: As a member of the Mormon church I was very upset by the second part of you program. I felt that a lot of time was given to bitter, excommunicated members of the church. What was you motivation behind this piece?

Helen Whitney: Out of the entire two hours, we spent very little time talking to people whom you describe as bitter. In fact, I am not sure who you refer to. Possibly the young man in the missionary act who left the church? His entire segment was no longer than three minutes. Or perhaps you are referring to the woman who was ex-communicated. This woman was clearly hurt but not bitter. She considered herself as a member of the loyal opposition who was trying to help the church, not hurt. She believes (as do many active members) that for an institution to be spiritually healthy, it should encourage questioning. Her interview was at most 5 minutes. So the total amount of time -- 8 minutes -- devoted to people who have the church and in one case regretfully and sorrowfully but not angrily does to me as excessive. It you trawl through the Internet blogs filled with anti-Mormon voices, I think you have to concede that we chose tempered, measured voices. I urge you to visit the Internet and then revisit the film.

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Cedar City, Utah: I felt the documentary was very informative and objective and struck a fair balance. I'm curious what your personal thoughts are about the Mormon faith. What was the most fascinating thing you learned as you worked on the documentary? What is your general feeling now about the Mormon religion?

Helen Whitney: I was struck by the emphasis on certainty in your religion. I come from a tradition which encourages doubt and questioning. My own faith is inflected with doubt which I feel is intimately connected to my faith. However, I sense from many conversations with Mormon believers that doubt can be seen as undermining of the faith, even dangerous to it. When I went to my first testimonial meeting, and heard men, women and children describe their faith using the words "I know" I was truly surprised. They didn't use words like: I hope, I believe, I intuit, but the ubiquitous phrase I know. For some Mormons, this can be inspirational, and yet for others it can be intimidating and discourage them from voicing their own questions. Nonetheless, as I spent time in the Mormon culture I came to learn that their certainty is a complex many layered encounter with the divine.

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Holladay, Utah: I appreciated the incredible amount of work that must have involved creating this insightful and unbiased documentary. I was particularly touched by the personal stories of those who are the victims of a sometimes hard and rigid culture. Perhaps we as members of the Church will remember that it is more important love than to judge and shun.

Helen Whitney: Arguably, yours is one of the most moving tributes to our documentary. If your response is similar to others, then we truly have created an important work.

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Louisa, Va.: Are any of the families portrayed on the show willing to receive contact? I was so touched by Charity's story and her beautiful voice -- is there a way to contact them or order her music?

Helen Whitney: Please visit the Web site. There is a Join the Discussion section and later today there will be some information about Charity.

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Murray, Ky.: Helen, I wonder if you could talk about your motivation for the visual look of the historical portion of the program. The images and music used seemed to set a dark tone to the film. I'm very interested to hear what you wanted the visual affects of the films to express. Thanks.

Helen Whitney: The dominant theme and tone of early Mormon history is dark -- filled with persecution, forced migrations, and verbal abuse. It's not the entire story -- the early church is also suffused with conversions and miracles and dancing and joy -- but overall, there was considerable pain and suffering. Brigham Young himself saw this suffering as an opportunity to forge an identity as a people. I'm paraphrasing, but Brigham himself said "woe to he who is comfortable in Zion."

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