November 15, 2007
Vol. 27 No. 5

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    Doc Films explores new frontier with film series on Mormon cinema

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    “Rarely seen outside of Utah...”

    For the first time in its 75-plus years, Doc Films can make that advertisement.

    The University's Doc Films, the oldest student film society in the country, renowned for its encyclopedic cinematic interests, has showcased a vast range of films with religious themes or subjects—from movies about Hindi life in India and Jewish life in Eastern Europe, to films spotlighting the Greek Orthodox experience, to movies about Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics and Muslims.

    But this year, Doc is exploring an uncharted frontier, showcasing an infant sub-genre that rarely has been seen outside of the Beehive State. At 9 p.m. on Thursday evenings this fall, Doc Films has been presenting Mormons!, a series of films that are in some way thematically related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The series, officially titled Mormons! Pro, Anti, and Absurdist Mormon Cinema, spans more than a century from 1905 to 2007.

    “Mormon cinema has existed as a genre for seven years,” said Frank Bednarz, the second-year Chicago Law student who programmed the series. “Yet it seems that no film series or festival outside of Utah has shown more than one of these movies.”

    There was at least one previous attempt at a Mormon-oriented film series at New York's Pioneer Theatre in 2005, said Bednarz. But that series emphasized “Mormonsploitation” films of the early 20th century, silent movies that darkly portrayed Mormonism. The Doc Films series did show the 1917 film, Mormon Maid, one of the progenitors of this genre, which was particularly popular in the 1920s in Great Britain.

    But Bednarz, who grew up Mormon in Salt Lake City and attended the University of Utah, was disappointed with the narrowness of the New York series. They showed few examples of modern Mormon cinema, Bednarz said, “Instead they concentrated on old, silent anti-Mormon films. I thought this was an enormous omission.”

    The series, which started in September, has showcased The Best Two Years, director Scott Anderson's sentimental take on his experience as a Latter-day Saints missionary in Holland; short films that students at Brigham Young University made; a 1940 film featuring Vincent Price as Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith; and the theology-drenched 1994 science-fiction film Plan 10 from Outer Space, in which the buried writings of a mad Mormon prophet portend Earth's invasion from the planet Kolob.

    The series also featured Bednarz's personal favorite, States of Grace, a controversial 2005 film made by Richard Dutcher, a man who, Bednarz said, pioneered the Mormon cinema genre—films made by and for Mormons. Dutcher has since left the Church of Latter-day Saints. “I wanted to show as diverse a cross-section of films as possible,” said Bednarz. “So I picked films from across the spectrum.”

    The series will conclude Thursday, Nov. 29 with a film that is among Hollywood's most controversial takes on the Mormon experience: September Dawn, released earlier this year. It stars Dean Cain as Joseph Smith and depicts the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where 120 Arkansas immigrants were killed in Southern Utah on Sept. 11, 1857. Prior to the screening, Seth Perry, a doctoral student in the Divinity School, who studies Mormon history, will introduce the film and talk about the historical veracity of its treatment.

    The idea for the series was spurred last year, when Bednarz discovered there was a whole film genre that none of his peers knew about, and at Doc Films, this was a significant discovery. “I have nothing on my fellow programmers when it comes to knowing esoteric, great movies,” said Bednarz, “but I did realize that I'm familiar with a whole class of films so neglected that few people outside of Utah have even heard of them.”

    Still, he did not find overwhelming support from his fellow film buffs. “Certain programmers hated the series,” he admitted. Nonetheless, he persuaded more than half of the programmers to approve the idea. “I think they were convinced out of curiosity and because of the series' timeliness,” he said, noting the growing curiosity in Mormonism sparked by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the polygamist Warren Jeffs and the HBO series Big Love, among others.

    While Bednarz was pitching the idea to his peers, several fellow programmers suggested a pre-screening scholarly lecture for one of the films to strengthen the series, and that is how Bednarz discovered Perry.

    In researching the Divinity School professors who had written on Mormonism, he learned about Perry, the school's only current student focusing his Ph.D. on Mormon Studies. Bednarz also learned that the Divinity School once had strong ties with Mormon intellectuals.

    Of his goals for Doc Films' first-ever Mormon series, Bednarz, who describes himself as “Mormon, though pretty heterodox,” said, “I hope some people get the chance to see something amazing. These are striking films for very different reasons, and I hope that some of the audience will appreciate them. And perhaps viewing these films will satisfy some of their curiosity.”

    For more information on “Mormons! Pro, Anti, and Absurdist Mormon Cinema” series or Doc Films, please visit: docfilms.uchicago.edu.