When organizers of the Driggs, Idaho, film festival Spudfest informed filmmaker Brian Patrick that his documentary Burying the Past: The Legacy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre was being pulled from the August 5 festival lineup, he was understandably surprised. The film had just won Utah's prestigious "Best of State 2004" award, to go along with its "Best of Festival" honors from the Berkeley and Broadcast Education Association festivals. Patrick had, in his words, "been forced to turn away hundreds of people" from recent showings in Salt Lake City and Park City, and audiences nationwide had told Patrick that they absolutely loved the film. But Driggs audiences, it appeared, were tougher than most.
"I was told [by festival organizers] that people from the local [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] ward were threatening to picket and boycott the festival," the University of Utah professor recalls. "An attorney called me and said that they were worried about offending the locals and wanted to pull it--but [the locals] hadn't even seen it. Just the idea of this film was offensive somehow. So they pulled it."
For a festival feature to garner such a reaction is nothing new. Festivals in Sydney, Edinburgh and New Zealand have all faced criticism in recent years for censoring films with controversial and explicit sex scenes. The difference is that Burying the Past is no high-end skin flick. It is a straightforward, research-laden documentary about one of the most infamous and enduring controversies of the American West,
The story of the Mountain Meadows massacre, familiar to millions but openly discussed by far fewer, goes like this: On September 11, 1857, a wagon train of approximately 120 pioneers heading from Arkansas to California were besieged by a group of Mormons, some dressed as Paiute Indians and some actually Paiute, near Cedar City, Utah. This much has been well documented, as has the conflicts between separatist church leaders and the U.S. government, which had the entire state prepped for a possible holy war against eastern "gentiles." Whether for reasons of xenophobia, politics or church edict, all but the youngest men, women and children in the wagon train were slaughtered under a white flag and left to rot in the sun. Church officials offered little explanation and only one patsy, John D. Lee, to answer for the crime with his life.
The debate over the LDS church leaders' exact involvement in the massacre has been an explosive topic for almost a century and a half, filling over a dozen books and countless articles, forums and heated conversations. Most texts, however, have been written by non-Mormon and anti-Mormon authors, leading to Patrick's conclusion that "to many people, if you even bring the event up, they think you are Mormon-bashing." This conclusion is backed up by two recent books, Blood of the Prophets by Utah historian Will Bagley and Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer. Both draw a line directly from then-governor and LDS prophet Brigham Young to the planning, execution and ensuing church cover-up of the massacre. Krakauer calls it "an episode that exemplified the fanaticism and concomitant brutality of a culture." These and other texts have sensitized LDS communities to even the mention of Mountain Meadows. While relentless in its drive for answers--many of which point clearly in the direction of church officials--Burying the Past is not Mormon bashing.
Patrick sets the ongoing debates against a contemporary backdrop of reconciliation between descendants of the victims and descendants of Lee (father of 64 children by 18 wives), who have collectively formed the Mountain Meadows Association to bury the hatchet. Even when anthropological analysis shows that many defenseless children were killed by point-blank gunshots in the face and back, Patrick and his subjects remain humble and faithful in one another's positive intent. Indeed, the most awkward presence in the film is that of current LDS president and prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, who, after funding an elaborate new memorial marker at Mountain Meadows, gives a dedication speech including the line, "That which we the church have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgment on the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day."
That awkwardness aside, Patrick insists that church officials have been supportive of his project he first met with them in 1999. "I don't think that this [controversy] in Idaho was in any way church-directed," Patrick says. "I think it was just individuals who feared that this film was set up to offend them." An administrative fear of offense is backed up by Spudfest's cryptic initial explanation of the exclusion, namely that Burying the Past was not "family friendly" enough to screen, while the graphically violent war film Saints and Soldiers was acceptable. More recently, Spudfest programmer Bruce Fletcher contends that the exclusion of Burying the Past was not related either to fears over protestation nor to any religious suppression.
"I'm the one who is directly responsible for it not playing," the avowed Patrick fan says, "and it didn't play because I simply couldn't fit it into the festival." Citing problems with scheduling, film format and intra-Spudfest debates over warning labels--he wanted to preface the R-rated documentary with "Some material may be disturbing," while other officials preferred the classic "Not suitable for children"--Fletcher labels the exclusion "just a weird thing that happened." "To [Patrick's] credit, there was a threat of protest," he explains. "But in my defense, there was nothing to do with censorship. The program at Spudfest has plenty of challenging material, but the theory was that challenging material should be thought provoking and not shocking or exploitative. Burying the Past certainly fits those [former] criteria."
Boise audiences will soon have the opportunity to test these conclusions for themselves as Burying the Past makes its Idaho premiere at the upcoming second annual Idaho International Film Festival (IIFF). Fletcher, who is programmer at IIFF as well as Spudfest, promises "There will be no difficulties this time--it will show."
Whether any more renegade individuals will attempt to impact the IIFF screening of Burying the Past remains to be seen. According to local LDS Church Public Affairs Specialist Gary Bennett, however, Boise filmgoers should not brace themselves for a controversy like Driggs'. "We are often called upon to comment one way or another on certain films, but we almost never do," he explains. "I think most of us feel comfortable with what we understand about [Mountain Meadows], and I would not expect anything resembling a protest from anyone in our community. If someone chooses to protest, it will be strictly on their own--not officially organized by the church in any way."
Fletcher, on the other hand, seems comfortable, almost welcoming, of the heated discussion that could accompany the screening. "If a protest happens," he says, "it will only serve to draw attention to a very worthy feature."