While I was at Brigham Young University, everyone would roll their eyes at me because I wouldn’t shut up about Latter-day Saint cinema. The prevailing sentiment was that Latter-day Saint movies were overdone and uninteresting to a general audience and that we should make something else to differentiate ourselves from all the “churchy” content being produced.
However, my experience growing up in the Southeast taught me just the opposite. I was one of just a few Latter-day Saints at my school, and people were always curious about the faith. My faith became a badge of individuality for me — something that made me unique. The more I learned about Latter-day Saint history, lore and culture, the more I wanted to explore it in narrative form.
I started doing research and found that creators of film and literature have long been fascinated by Latter-day Saints. But there are still people unfamiliar with the faith, creating continual marketability. This is why we are seeing an uptick in media such as “Murder Among the Mormons,” “Under the Banner of Heaven” and the forthcoming “Sinner v. Saints.” This will likely continue.
And yet, ironically, many Latter-day Saint filmmakers either lean into preaching or abandon Latter-day Saint subjects altogether. I decided to experiment with Latter-day Saint concepts in my own films and found great success in doing so — and notably, outside of Utah.
There is, I believe, a market for rich, balanced and interesting Latter-day Saint stories. And Latter-day Saints are uniquely qualified to tell these stories.
Our expertise is especially needed because depictions of Latter-day Saints have historically been inaccurate and exoticizing, in large part because the filmmakers and writers stand outside the faith.
If someone does not actively identify with a community, he or she is simply less qualified than an active member of that community to tell its stories. Active participation is important, and not just a background in the community, because that participation represents the present experience of an evolving culture.
However, far more important than whether an artist is active or less active, or a nonmember or former member, is the intent of the artist.
Artistic intent influences everything. Imagine asking someone to write a profile of you. Who would get it right? A lover? A family member? An embittered ex? A stranger who did his research? All of these possibilities come with inherent risks and biases.
What would undoubtedly be the least accurate would be a depiction written by someone whose eyes are too colored by their own opinion of you. The finished work would end up saying more about them than about you. Similarly, nonmembers run the risk of getting things wrong as outsiders. Active members run the risk of being too apologetic to the point of inaccuracy, and former members run the risk of being too critical to the point of unrecognizability.
The solution, in my opinion, is to put story before sermon. We need more authentic and genuine stories of Latter-day Saints. Instead of trying to push an explicitly devotional or an explicitly critical message, we just need to tell more stories that escape provincialism.
I realize that no one can gate-keep Latter-day Saint cinema. But applying powerful rules of story and craftsmanship will yield the best results. As filmmaker Richard Dutcher observed years ago, “(Latter-day Saints) have something different, unique, vitally important to offer. Dedicate yourselves to making substantial films of elevated craft, undeniable artistry and potent themes.”
It’s my firm belief that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the narrative potential in our history, doctrine, culture and lore. That is why I will continue to encourage identifying Latter-day Saint filmmakers (across a spectrum of belief and activity) to reclaim their heritage and engage in our filmmaking in a balanced and well-crafted way. It’s our birthright. And the art we make will be good for both the faith and the larger world.
Barrett Burgin is an award-winning filmmaker, best known for his films ”The Next Door” (2016), “Out of the Ground” (2017) and ”Father of Man” (2019). His latest film, ”CRYO” will be released in theaters and on digital in June.