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Documentary explores handcart tragedy

LDS filmmaker says he strives for accuracy in work

Published: Monday, May 29 2006 12:05 a.m. MDT

MARTIN'S COVE, Wyo. — An LDS filmmaker whose latest work will portray the tragedy of the 1856 Willie and Martin handcart companies said historians, writers and filmmakers who recount the past have a shared and sacred trust to ensure that their work accurately reflects the events that occurred.

Lee Groberg addressed members of the Mormon History Association on Sunday at the group's annual conference finale in the LDS Church's trek center near Martin's Cove. Scores of 19th century LDS emigrants in the Martin Handcart Company died in the cove in October 1856, weakened by hunger, exhaustion and exposure as they tried to find shelter from subzero temperatures.

Some of what occurred was re-enacted earlier this year as part of Groberg's latest documentary for PBS, "The Sweetwater Rescue," which was planned to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the handcart pioneers being celebrated this year by the church. He said the one-hour film will air nationwide, most likely in October, though a firm date has yet to be set.

His previous documentaries about segments in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints include "Trail of Hope," on the Mormon pioneer migration that began in 1847, and "American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith."

Groberg discussed specifics of filming his latest work, describing how film crews, extras and LDS missionaries near the cove tried to re-enact some of the events here as subzero temperatures and deep snow provided a realistic but challenging backdrop. "We prayed for snow and got it, but we didn't pray for 34 (degrees) below (zero) for several days."

At one spot on the Sweetwater River near the cove where the freezing pioneers are believed to have crossed, the ice was 8 to 10 inches thick, he said, so the film crew moved to another spot where the ice could be broken to allow the filming.

Because of the costs incurred with protracted waiting for perfect weather conditions, he settled for filming in a different spot. "In this case, it's a representation" of where the event occurred, he said.

Groberg noted he's highly sensitive to the importance of accuracy in his work, adding, "I'm not a studied historian." He thanked those in the audience who make history their life's work and strive to be as accurate as possible. "I appreciate the passion with which you tackle your craft."

He said the "scary part of that sacred trust" to be accurate is that both his film portrayals and the writings of schooled historians "become what people will look at" and believe is true, though the details of history tend to change over time as new sources of information come to light.

"Sometimes we don't get it right. Sometimes we publish the facts as we have them, then we learn to our horror that they have changed," he said.

"I hope that those who follow us, who have the right to benefit from our work, will have felt that we got it right. I'm sure they will come along and correct something that we knew was correct, because that's the nature of history — more tidbits come forward."

Groberg said as he made his film about Joseph Smith, he sought out top historians, consultants and advisers. One was "a respected person within the LDS Church," who told him, "when you tell the story, you'll get rocks thrown (at you) by both sides," referring to fellow Latter-day Saints and those outside the church.

The prediction proved true. "I had people within the LDS Church who thought it was terrible and people outside the LDS Church telling me things they thought were not right." After it was broadcast, PBS received a number of letters about the film "saying some not-very-nice things."

Groberg read about 20 such letters, most of them from Utah and Idaho. He said many "can leave the church but they can't leave it alone. To me, there was nothing valid in their arguments. It was just sour grapes. I took it as the cost of doing business on that story."

Reaction to his latest film will certainly come, including from among historians in the audience, yet "we think when it's done, we'll come up with a product that will stand the test of time, and that's because of you."


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com

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