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"Spiritual Wife" or Single Mother?

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Issue: 31 Section: Arts Topics: film

October 27, 2005

"Spiritual Wife" or Single Mother?

The film Banking On Heaven explores polygamy and religion in Colorado City

by David Sanderson

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"Our crew needs to know not just how to use a camera but a .357 too."
Recently premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Banking on Heaven condemns what one American senator calls, "Arizona's dirty little secret" - the community of Colorado City, AZ.

Colorado City is home to one of the world's largest congregations of Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a term broadly applied to splinter sects from mainstream Mormonism, claiming to be the true church and practicing "celestial unions" - polygamy. Through interviews with outcasts and escapees, interspersed with hidden camera footage, Banking on Heaven presents a compelling case that systematic sexual, physical, and mental abuse is inherent to this community and, indeed, to fundamentalist Mormonism. The premiere provoked a strong audience response and was attended by both director Dot Reidelbach and writer/producer Laurie Allen, who grew up in Colorado City before leaving at age eighteen.

Banking on Heaven will not be one of the documentaries making the leap to mainstream. It builds no story arc. Its filming is basic. While lacking polish, its raw aesthetic emphasizes the primacy of its message and manages to give sensationalism a wide berth.

Colorado City is home to the largest North American FLDS sect, the United Effort Plan (UEP), now headed by the Prophet Warren Jeffs. Warren inherited this role and an estimated seventy-five wives from his father, Rulon Jeffs. According to Banking on Heaven Warren, like Rulon before him, commands absolute obedience. When asked if Warren's followers were capable of "drinking the kool-aid" if he told them to, (referring to the mass cult suicide of Jonestown) several former UEP members responded, "Absolutely." The mayor, law enforcement officials, and superintendent of public schools in this remote area all report to Warren, giving the prophet control over education and civil appointments. It also makes it far harder to leave - there is effectively no one local to ask for help, and the town's remote location makes leaving unaided extremely difficult.

Life in the UEP is strictly and sometimes violently regimented; forbidden are television, radio, and books not approved by church leaders. Contact with outsiders is banned. Followers are taught that the non-faithful are agents of Satan - the truck used by Banking on Heaven's crew drives a wave of fleeing children and adults before it, though not before one mother takes the time to raise her middle finger. The film crew was constantly followed by groups of young men in trucks who at one occasion tried to drive the director and writer's car off the road. When asked during a post-film Q&A if they feared any violence, writer Laurie Allen replied, "Our crew needs to know not just how to use a camera but a .357 too."

In the UEP women and children are property of the church itself, meaning that they can be stripped from one man at any time and given to another. Girls are married off and impregnated as early as possible; incestuous unions are not uncommon. Colorado City depends on what the filmmakers call, "an economy of women," referring not to their treatment as chattel but as literally the community's primary source of income. Because polygamy is illegal in Arizona, the state considers church members' multiple "spiritual wives" to be single mothers. They are thus eligible for government funding such as welfare and food stamps, which are passed to the prophet. This is known as "bleeding the beast" and has swelled UEP assets to an estimated US$400 million even as many of the faithful families struggle to get enough to eat.

The UEP is not simply Arizona's dirty little secret. One of the largest satellite communities of the UEP is located in the Creston Valley, in Bountiful, British Columbia. The traffic of girls between Bountiful and Colorado City has a history over generations, and Bountiful escapees' tales of sexual abuse mirror those in Arizona. Winston Blackmore is the so-called Bishop of Bountiful, leading the Canadian UEP, school system, and community newspaper. He is also father to more than a hundred children and has at least thirty wives. In a last minute surprise to all, including the filmmakers, Banking on Heaven's premiere was attended by Jane Blackmore, who until recently was one of those wives. She is related to or familiar with many of the interviewees, and attested to the film's accuracy before its audience. Before leaving in 2002 Jane was Bountiful's midwife, delivering babies for mothers as young as fourteen. She knows everyone involved - including the fathers demonstrably guilty at the very least of statutory rape - and has spoken to the RCMP, but to little response.

Writer Laurie Allen supplies the voiceover accompanying the shaky hidden-camera footage and archival photographs. Though there is no doubting the earnestness of her words, these brief editorial interludes are unable to match the strength of the film's core of interviews with victims and political figures. Had the subject matter been less compelling or appalling, Banking on Heaven would not succeed as it does - a documentary in the simplest sense, recording that which speaks for itself. Banking on Heaven's excellence lies in its ability to have its audience's jaws on the floor for ninety minutes, incredulous that such communities are possible.

The credibility of its information is important, especially given the community's closed nature; however, Banking's allegations are supported by other public information. Indeed, to the UEP, polygamy and massive welfare fraud are points of open pride; moved audience members quickly noted that in any secular situation, public authorities would have intervened years ago. Regarding more specific allegations of incest and sexual abuse, the film's evidence is largely based on testimonials (with such notable exceptions as a wedding photo of Rulon Jeffs and two new brides, sisters aged fourteen and fifteen), but those telling their stories have nothing discernable to gain by lying and seem to have little interest in being tabloid spectacles. Here too the understated style of Banking on Heaven works well: the direct, listening-stance camerawork invites you to bear witness as well, and to draw your own conclusions.

The filmmakers' stated aim is to raise awareness and demonstrate that these communities have little to do with religion and everything to do with money, misogyny, and sexual and physical abuse. They calls its viewers to consider the distinction between freedom of religious belief, and freedom of religious practice. Awareness, particularly so as to pressure politicians to act, is an obvious first step, but as a call to arms Banking on Heaven is not as clear as one might hope; the filmmakers and Jane Blackmore were repeatedly questioned after the show as to what people can do to help. They stressed a need for education and a long-term support network for those coming out of these communities. The frustratingly vague nature of these answers has as much to do with the problem as it does the format of the film.

Last month all of the UEP's assets in the United States were frozen and a warrant was issued for Warren Jeffs' arrest on charges of child abuse (he remains at large), but even if Warren Jeffs or Winston Blackmore were arrested, doubtless others would take their place. How does one help a group whose most vocal and powerful members adamantly resist outside interference, and even those who do want their situations of abuse to change have been raised from birth to categorically mistrust outsiders? It is not who is in charge or the resources "bled" or even showing the people of these communities how to make better choices that is most important; it is, as Jane Blackmore puts it, showing them that there are choices at all.

Doubtlessly, the film screening benefitted from the filmmakers' presence, and for a Canadian audience to have Jane Blackmore answering questions further increased the film's relevance. This demonstrates not any failure or lack of information in the film, but rather its tremendous success in achieving its stated aim - Banking on Heaven fascinates and enrages, demonstrably inspires questions, and may well inspire action as well.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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