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MormonTimes.com: For LDS filmmakers, ordinary becomes extraordinary

SHARE MormonTimes.com: For LDS filmmakers, ordinary becomes extraordinary

Dean Duncan and Ben Unguren aren't seeking gloss and perfection.

Instead, they're looking for lilies.

Make no mistake, the two filmmakers are interested in telling extraordinary stories. But according to Unguren, those can be found by simply following the Savior's admonition in Chapter 6 of Matthew to "consider the lilies of the field."

For Duncan and Unguren, the product of such consideration is "Fit for the Kingdom," a project co-produced by the two Brigham Young University faculty members that features short documentary films on the lives of everyday members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"There is a tendency in some (LDS) media to make things look extra nice, to polish it up," said Unguren, who is originally from Seattle. "Think about the lilies. In a sense . . . we're considering the lilies of the church."

"Fit for the Kingdom" is a collaborative effort that originated as a faculty and student project at BYU, where Duncan has been an associate professor in the department of theater and media arts for 16 years. Duncan, who is from Edmonton, Alberta, wanted students to explore documentary filmmaking. One of those students was Unguren, who Duncan described as "shatteringly good."

Over time, a collection of short films emerged. Currently, there are 17 available for viewing at the Web site fitforthekingdom.byu.edu, and several others are in production.

The films are raw and basic, devoid of theatrics and excess emotion-inducing elements. The titles are also simple, with most being named after the person who is the subject of the film.

While he acknowledges that traditional LDS-themed media is "well-meaning," Duncan directed a different approach. His objective was to apply simple techniques to what he calls "the domestic sphere."

"We wanted to remove all of the gloss, all of the compulsory means, and, to use a phrase from 'King Lear,' do the thing itself," he said. "I was convinced that we could be edified by a greater attention at that which was close at hand."

When Duncan says "close," he means it. One of the films takes place in his own back yard.

The film "Scriptures" is based on the Duncan family's attempt to read the Book of Mormon together, an effort that is distracted by bickering, fatigue, general disinterest and a bunch of kids playing in a hammock. The mother describes her "ideal" scripture study, but instead experiences a "complete disaster."

Duncan said he did receive some negative reaction to the film, which lasts less than seven minutes and makes no attempt to present a picture-perfect study session. He wasn't bothered by the criticism, though.

"There are more nuances to happy family life," he said. "Our happiness shouldn't be a postcard . . . Real happiness has a little flavor, it has some scuffs on it. If we expect postcards, we're going to feel betrayed."

Unguren described the film, which he edited and Duncan directed, as "scripture study that goes awry." However, he said the inherent message is that such efforts, although sometimes flawed, are worth it.

"We don't push perfection," Unguren said.

While most of the works are products of filmmakers with BYU ties, they do extend well beyond Duncan's back yard. For example, "Robinsons" is about an LDS family of 10 living on a farm in Chihuahua, Mexico, and their stories involving everything from swing sets to chili plants. "Kanjana," a recently produced film, follows a mother of two working as a roadside food vendor in Ayuthaya, Thailand.

But no matter the setting, the films all hit close to home, keeping the camera pointed on people who usually wouldn't be the subject of such attention but whose lives are rich with stories. The heartaches and emotions evolve naturally, and there are anguish and tears mingled harmoniously with joy and smiles.

"Ramona" is the story of a Provo mother who sacrificed her career for her children and who weeps when talking about her husband's efforts to support the family. "Karolee" features a woman battling an eating disorder and trying to reconcile her life with the Plan of Salvation, and "Lorien" chronicles a soon-to-be missionary cleaning out her car and talking about what's ahead.

Then there is "Angie," a lengthy film about a Utah woman who died of cancer in 2005. Angie Russell was the wife of one of Duncan's colleagues, who allowed the filmmaker to take the family's home movies and "shape them." The end result was therapeutic and served as a memorial, Duncan said.

"At the end, it becomes a powerful film," he said. "We can preserve their image and their life."

Spending time with ordinary church members has helped Unguren gain a greater sense of an individual's worth.

"Every child of our heavenly father is excruciatingly important," he said. "These films help me start to get a sense of that . . . taking (people) as they are and seeing that there's something wonderful about them."

According to Unguren, one of the more popular films is "Leroy," the story of an 82-year-old Provo man and church patriarch working as a crossing guard. After the film was produced, Unguren was driving with his wife, who had a "mild epiphany" upon seeing another individual doing the same job as Leroy.

"She could look at this crossing guard and suddenly recognize that there was something more important about this person other than wearing a vest and holding a stop sign," Unguren said.

Duncan said he'd like to see the collection of films achieve more diversity in terms of geography and ethnicity. It's not there yet, but the project is starting to see contributions come from outside BYU. Duncan doesn't see "Fit for the Kingdom" branching beyond the Internet, but thinks of it as a sustainable venture.

"It's very much a long-haul thing," he said. "There's no reason we can't keep knocking these out."

For the two producers, it's been an edifying experiences.

Unguren points to the film "Rusty," which chronicles a man who is trying to piece his life back together. Unguren heard from a man in Hawaii, who had a positive experience viewing the film with his rebellious son.

"In seeing these films, their own imperfections became affirmed in a faith-promoting way," Unguren said. "We are imperfect . . . It means we need the Atonement in our lives."

For Duncan, the project reminds him that there are "regular people" in the church and not just doctrines and precepts.

"By putting this stuff together," he said, "it sensitizes us to the beauty around us."