Sundance Films 2015 M5: Prophet's Prey
My oh my. This is some seriously messed up stuff. More deserving of profanity than Mr. Cobain's personal torment, but since I've had a couple days and movies to get extracted from the evil madness of Warren Jeffs, I can speak without profanity. But first, what this movie is NOT about. It is not about Polygamy, even though this LDS group is generally called "The Polygs" (ph: Po-ligs). There is nothing inherently wrong with polygamy - it is just one of many religious practices that some religions do and others don't. That numerous politically influential sects in America are outraged and offended by polygamy does not make it morally corrupt in itself. I grew up in a liberal religious tradition that accepts all religious traditions on an equal footing, excepting those that are abusive to people's freedom. I have friends that have a 3-person marriage and it seems to be working fine. I have a friend who grew up in a polygamous household and she came out great.
What this film IS about is the evil sociopath Warren Jeffs and the effort to uncover the ways he has and IS using his role as Prophet to control a large group of people, and use them for his evil deeds and ways. The story is not over yet. Though in jail, he still runs the colony with as many as 10,000 followers. Absolute obedience to the Prophet is the requirement for continuing in the colony; small violation lead to expulsion, at least, if you are male. Expulsion includes having your wives and children re-assigned to other men, and being cut off from all you have ever known and loved. This is the threat that Jeffs holds over everyone in the FLDS. Jeffs's 'church' is called the FLDS or Fundamentalist LDS church.
The movie is based on the continuing investigations of Sam Brower and Jon Krakauer into the activities of Warren Jeffs and the Short Creek (Hildale and Colorado City) colony, and includes a lot of first-person testimony from expelled members, including cousins, one ex-wife, and Warren's former chief of security. The blanket of denial in the State of Utah is pretty thick, but here's hoping this blows the lid off it. For those who don't know, prosecuting polygs is not politically supported in Utah. Much of the population, especially the political movers and shakers, have polygamy in their not-too-distant past; many still resent the Federal Gov'ts strong-arming of Utah into abandoning polygamy in 1890; and there is a turning away from seeing the abuse that is associated with polygamy in some colonies. These crimes are also hard to collect evidence for, given the totalitarian nature of the colonies, and that the colonies are large enough to be their own towns, controlling local law enforcement and the schools. They are clever enough to chose isolated locations for the colonies, so that the authorities can ignore them.
In Utah, there is nostalgia for pioneer days... This reluctance on the part of the official law enforcement authorities to pursue charges is why the investigation is driven by two private individuals who see and understand the evil, and will not let it pass (to the best of their ability).
At Zion Adventure Company, we guide a canyon that is behind Hildale, and drive through the town with clients. We are given the tough job of explaining the nature of the town without inflicting our judgment upon it, to people from across the USA and the world who have no idea what is going on there. (This might be harder, now). I thought I had a good idea of where things stood, but I was wrong.
Here are some things I learned from the movie and from the Q and A after:
1. Warren Jeffs moved to Hildale recently. Previously, the colony had been at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and only moved down to the more isolated colony in the late 1990's (or so, I cannot find confirmation). However, Hildale had been an FLDS colony for a long time.
2. Warren Jeffs likes to have sex with children, boys and girls alike. Before becoming Prophet (on the death of his father, Rulon Jeffs), he was head of the Alta Academy (at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon) where he regularly sodomized the kids, boys and girls alike, most of whom were his cousins or other relatives.
3. Warren was first councilor to his father, Rulon Jeffs, prophet of the FLDS Church, when Rulon was old and feeble, and essentially ran the church from that time forward. Warren had many young women marry Rulon in his final years, apparently substituting himself for the consummation. When Rulon finally died, Warren took his father's wives for his own. How many? Hard to say - probably in the range of 60 or 70.
4. What happens to the boys? Since the girls are married off to the elders of the church, what do they do with all the boys. This was in the Q and A: they provide income for the colony. The boys are given about an 8th grade education, and then they are enrolled in work crews that travel the west doing construction work. The boys / young men are virtually slaves. They have been told from birth that the outside world is filled with evil. They are disallowed from listening to the radio or music, from reading outside stuff, from having their own money or talking to strangers. Small scale totalitarianism. The boys have no real-world experience and thus even if they wanted to escape, could not function in society. The income from these many work crews goes to the United Effort Plan (UEP). The FLDS is a commutarian outfit - all property and assets are owned by the UEP, all income goes into the UEP and is controlled by the Prophet. There are businesses outside Hildale that are quite successful and contribute millions of dollars per year to the UEP. Warren still controls this from his Texas jailcell through the true believers, including one of his brothers who is titular head of the FLDS church. He controls income in the 10 million dollars per year range.
There's more, of course. A lot more.
One thing the film did not cover in depth is the charges that put him in prison for life in Texas. They gave enough detail to cover what happened, but there is a LOT more they could have said about this (though I think they chose wisely to not put much emphasis on it). When Texas raided the ranch, they seized tapes from the Temple that included recordings of the ritual consummation of his marriages to girls as young as 12. (This came out in the trial, and was reported in the newspapers). I had assumed they were video tapes, but from the movie, it is apparent they were sound tapes. They played one - it was chilling. It is still chilling, just thinking about it. (In Texas, they prosecuted him for child-rape, based on his marriage and ritual consummation to a 15-year old and a 12-year old. During the sentencing phase, the state presented evidence that these were not isolated incidents).
This is some seriously fucked up shit.
(Not in the movie): Brower and Krakauer are clear that Jeffs still has tight control over the FLDS church and its approximately 10,000 adherents. Jeffs is a highly skilled sociopath. They suspect that he may go out with a bang, which could include a Waco-like incident or a Jonestown-like incident, on an unprecedented scale.
From the newspaper:
Prosecutors also showed evidence that Jeffs has 78 plural wives, including 12 girls married at age 16 and another 12 who were 15 or younger.
According to testimony, he gave the girls' fathers or brothers their own young brides in exchange for the young brides and at least one parent was present at all of those wedding ceremonies.
While the FLDS membership might not have been on trial, those parents and others who ignored the signs of Jeffs' abuse also bear responsibility, said former FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop.
"We wanted him so bad to be good that we were willing to condone his dereliction of people," he said. In supporting Jeffs, "we built this golden calf. Now we have to decide: Do we love God or do we love the golden calf?"
There are 10,000 members of the FLDS, many of whom live in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
I'm hoping we can bring this film to Springdale soon.
Oh, yeah, the film. The film is excellently done, and lays out all this cac clearly. Good storytelling of a difficult story. WAS shrouded in mist; not anymore. The film-maker is Amy Berg, who previously put together West of Memphis, another incredibly disturbing film. Genius at work!