writes for The Dominion,
where this review originally appeared.
City is home to one of the world's largest congregations of
Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a term broadly applied
to splinter sects from mainstream Mormonism, claiming to be
the true church and practicing "celestial unions"
- polygamy. Through interviews with outcasts and escapees, interspersed
with hidden camera footage, Banking on Heaven presents
a compelling case that systematic sexual, physical, and mental
abuse is inherent to this community and, indeed, to fundamentalist
Mormonism. The premiere provoked a strong audience response
and was attended by both director Dot Reidelbach and writer/producer
Laurie Allen, who grew up in Colorado City before leaving at
on Heaven will not be one of the documentaries making the
leap to mainstream. It builds no story arc. Its filming is basic.
While lacking polish, its raw aesthetic emphasizes the primacy
of its message and manages to give sensationalism a wide berth.
is home to the largest North American FLDS sect, the United
Effort Plan (UEP), now headed by the Prophet Warren Jeffs. Warren
inherited this role and an estimated 75 wives from his father,
Rulon Jeffs. According to Banking on Heaven, Warren,
like Rulon before him, commands absolute obedience. When asked
if Warren's followers were capable of "drinking the kool-aid"
if he told them to, (referring to the mass cult suicide of Jonestown)
several former UEP members responded, "Absolutely."
The mayor, law enforcement officials and superintendent of public
schools in this remote area all report to Warren, giving the
prophet control over education and civil appointments. It also
makes it far harder to leave -- there is effectively no one
local to ask for help, and the town's remote location makes
leaving unaided extremely difficult.
Life in the
UEP is strictly and sometimes violently regimented; forbidden
are television, radio and books not approved by church leaders.
Contact with outsiders is banned. Followers are taught that
the non-faithful are agents of Satan -- the truck used by Banking
on Heaven's crew drives a wave of fleeing children and
adults before it, though not before one mother takes the time
to raise her middle finger. The film crew was constantly followed
by groups of young men in trucks, who at one occasion tried
to drive the director and writer's car off the road. When asked
during a post-film Q&A if they feared any violence, writer
Laurie Allen replied, "Our crew needs to know not just
how to use a camera but a .35, too."
In the UEP
women and children are property of the church itself, meaning
that they can be stripped from one man at any time and given
to another. Girls are married off and impregnated as early as
possible; incestuous unions are not uncommon. Colorado City
depends on what the filmmakers call, "an economy of women,"
referring not to their treatment as chattel but as literally
the community's primary source of income. Because polygamy is
illegal in Arizona, the state considers church members' multiple
"spiritual wives" to be single mothers. They are thus
eligible for government funding such as welfare and food stamps,
which are passed to the prophet. This is known as "bleeding
the beast" and has swelled UEP assets to an estimated US$400
million even as many of the faithful families struggle to get
enough to eat.
The UEP is
not simply Arizona's dirty little secret. One of the largest
satellite communities of the UEP is located in the Creston Valley,
in Bountiful, British Columbia. The traffic of girls between
Bountiful and Colorado City has a history over generations,
and Bountiful escapees' tales of sexual abuse mirror those in
Arizona. Winston Blackmore is the so-called Bishop of Bountiful,
leading the Canadian UEP, school system and community newspaper.
He is also father to more than a hundred children and has at
least thirty wives. In a last minute surprise to all, including
the filmmakers, Banking on Heaven's premiere was attended
by Jane Blackmore, who until recently was one of those wives.
She is related to or familiar with many of the interviewees,
and attested to the film's accuracy before its audience. Before
leaving in 2002 Jane was Bountiful's midwife, delivering babies
for mothers as young as fourteen. She knows everyone involved
-- including the fathers demonstrably guilty at the very least
of statutory rape -- and has spoken to the RCMP, but to little
Allen supplies the voiceover accompanying the shaky hidden-camera
footage and archival photographs. Though there is no doubting
the earnestness of her words, these brief editorial interludes
are unable to match the strength of the film's core of interviews
with victims and political figures. Had the subject matter been
less compelling or appalling, Banking on Heaven would
not succeed as it does -- a documentary in the simplest sense,
recording that which speaks for itself.
of its information is important, especially given the community's
closed nature; however, Banking's allegations are supported
by other public information. Indeed, to the UEP, polygamy and
massive welfare fraud are points of open pride; moved audience
members quickly noted that in any secular situation, public
authorities would have intervened years ago. Regarding more
specific allegations of incest and sexual abuse, the film's
evidence is largely based on testimonials (with such notable
exceptions as a wedding photo of Rulon Jeffs and two new brides,
sisters aged 14 and 15), but those telling their stories have
nothing discernable to gain by lying and seem to have little
interest in being tabloid spectacles. Here, too, the understated
style of Banking on Heaven works well: the direct,
listening-stance camerawork invites you to bear witness as well,
and to draw your own conclusions.
stated aim is to raise awareness and demonstrate that these
communities have little to do with religion and everything to
do with money, misogyny, and sexual and physical abuse. They
call its viewers to consider the distinction between freedom
of religious belief and freedom of religious practice. Awareness,
particularly so as to pressure politicians to act, is an obvious
first step, but as a call to arms Banking on Heaven
is not as clear as one might hope; the filmmakers and Jane Blackmore
were repeatedly questioned after the show as to what people
can do to help. They stressed a need for education and a long-term
support network for those coming out of these communities. The
frustratingly vague nature of these answers has as much to do
with the problem as it does the format of the film.
all of the UEP's assets in the United States were frozen and
a warrant was issued for Warren Jeffs' arrest on charges of
child abuse (he remains at large), but even if Warren Jeffs
or Winston Blackmore were arrested, doubtless others would take
their place. How does one help a group whose most vocal and
powerful members adamantly resist outside interference, while
those who would like to escape their abuse have been raised
from birth to categorically mistrust outsiders? It is not who
is in charge or the resources "bled" or even showing
the people of these communities how to make better choices that
is most important; it is, as Jane Blackmore puts it, showing
them that there are choices at all.
the film screening benefitted from the filmmakers' presence,
and for a Canadian audience to have had Jane Blackmore answering
questions. This demonstrates not any failure or lack of information
in the film, but rather its tremendous success in achieving
its stated aim -- Banking on Heaven fascinates and
enrages, demonstrably inspires questions, and may well inspire
action as well.