We’ve been talking about our Mormon heritage and pioneers this week on Doves and Serpents. To continue this theme, I had a lot of grand ideas about this Rogue Cinema post. I was going to write about Mormon Film Pioneers! Mormons who are film pioneers or Mormons who are pioneering Mormon Films! Since Richard Dutcher released “God’s Army” in 2000, dozens of films have been made by Mormons for Mormon audiences. Surely, that movement is worth noting, right? Right.
The only problem is that I respect the effort, the idea of Mormon Films, more than I’ve enjoyed any of the films themselves. The output of most Mormon filmmakers has been full of stale inside jokes, after-school special lessons and an almost cynical sentimentality. These films have largely been mediocre commercial enterprises driven by an audience looking for unchallenging, good clean fun.
Not that I object to good clean fun. But when I think of films that might tick all the boxes a faithful member is looking for in a film – a G or PG rating, a spiritual or moral message and respect for the values of the audience – what comes to mind is Pixar, not Mormon Cinema. Mormon Cinema may be able to boast the ratings, but it lacks the humanity, the spiritual thread that runs through films like “Finding Nemo” or “Up” (the opening minutes of that film get me every time) or even something like Wes Anderson’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” These films respect their audience, but they are not driven by the audience, they are driven by story and character. And in telling particular stories they tap into universal experience – the fierce love of a parent for a child, how to let someone grow up, how to survive loss, or the importance of family and friends.
By this standard of judgment, Jerusha and Jared Hess, the writers and director of the surprise 2004 hit “Napoleon Dynamite” are the most successful Mormon filmmakers working today. The Hess duo wore their Mormon heritage lightly and focused on telling a story. Arguably, filmmakers such as Neil LaBute or Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk” and “Big Love” are also telling stories that have been impacted by their Mormon backgrounds. However, in the cases of LaBute, Black and Dutcher (not to mention actors like Aaron Eckhart, Katherine Heigl or many others) there has been conflict between being Mormon and being an artist. LaBute left the church shortly after leaving BYU, Black has spoken openly of the pain of growing up in the Mormon church as a gay man (and narrated the documentary “8: The Mormon Proposition”) and Dutcher, who had a well-publicized exit from the church, has spoken many times about feeling boxed in by his role as the “Father of Mormon Cinema.” The last three have been pioneering filmmakers, but they’ve struggled with the tension between their faith and their art, ultimately finding that they could not be true to their art or to themselves as active members. I think the question remains of whether the authoritarian, obedience-driven culture of the church can ever allow space for artists to tell their stories with freedom and integrity.
But I think there are other pioneers out there. Filmmakers who come from a Mormon background who are interested in telling stories that arise from their heritage or faith, but have a universal appeal, something that goes beyond the niche market of a few states in the Intermountain west. People who are tackling the challenge of mixing art with their faith. In coming months on Rogue Cinema, we will be seeking out and spotlighting Mormon Film Pioneers — those writers, artists, documentarians and directors that are exploring their humanity and faith with honesty and thoughtfulness. Because I believe we have stories to tell and if we don’t do it, it will be done for us.