Helen Whitney

PASADENA, Calif. — Award-winning filmmaker Helen Whitney has one over-arching goal for her four-hour production "The Mormons," which airs this spring on PBS.

"I hope that most of the stereotypes — ideally, all of them — will be blown away," she told the Deseret Morning News on Saturday. "Because so many of them are just based on ignorance. Ignorance about Mormon history, ignorance about Mormon theology. Ignorance."

The two-part, four-hour documentary, a presentation of both "American Experience" and "Frontline" — their first co-production — is to air nationally on April 30 and May 1.

After spending three years on the project, Whitney is well aware of the stereotypes and ignorance that's out there.

"Most of the time when I bring up what I'm doing and I talk about it with people, the first word that comes up is polygamy," she said.

Indeed, introducing the documentary to a gathering of television critics from across the country, it took only moments for the subject to be raised. It was addressed in the first question asked of Whitney and a panel that included KUED's Ken Verdoia and authors Will Bagley and Terryl Givens.

(And, interestingly, in addition to asking about the Osmonds, television critics — learning that the men have Utah ties — assumed all three are active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; only Givens is.)

Whitney has no illusions that "The Mormons" will answer all questions about the LDS Church.

"It is not exhaustive. It is not comprehensive. It is thematic," said Whitney, who worked with both LDS and non-LDS consultants. "I have chosen what I felt to be the defining ideas and themes and events in Mormon history that would help outsiders go inside the church."

It's not altogether chronological, but "roughly so."

The first night, on "American Experience," addresses LDS Church history, with themes that include revelation, persecution leading to exodus, polygamy and "the great accommodation" when the church renounced plural marriage.

The second night, on "Frontline," deals with the modern church — missionary work, family, temples, dissenters and "the extraordinary transformation from a people who are outsiders and pariahs to the mainstream. It is one of the great, neglected narratives of American religious history," Whitney said.

Also timed to air in April in conjunction with the two-part documentary are three "Antiques Roadshow" episodes filmed in Salt Lake City, looking at memorabilia from the West and early days of the LDS Church.

"The Mormons" is not a film about Utah. Whitney traveled across the country, from New York to California; she sent a film crew to Ghana.

"Mormons are everywhere, and I wanted to make that point," she said. "There are more Mormons outside of America than in this country. And even within America, there are many Mormons outside of Utah. So only a small part of it was shot in Utah."

She spent three years working on the film, interviewing "hundreds and hundreds of people" ranging from LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley to everyday church members to those who are openly antagonistic toward the church.

She attended ward meetings and made visits with home teachers; she spoke with people who had been excommunicated.

"The Mormons" will no doubt displease anyone who doesn't want to hear a negative word about the LDS Church. At the same time, it's going to anger those who don't want to hear anything good about it.

The LDS Church was "absolutely cooperative" in the making of the film, said Whitney, an Emmy and Peabody Award winner who profiled monks in "The Monastery," profiled John Paul II in "The Millennial Pope" and looked at religion in the wake of terrorism in "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero."

"They had seen my films. They realized ... that I was not going to approach them and be uncritical but I would be respectful," she said. "And it would be an intelligent film and searching."

Whitney's goal is not to recruit people to become Mormons, nor is it to discourage current or prospective members. She is hoping, however, that "The Mormons" will prompt viewers to examine their own beliefs.

"I would also like them to take a deep and searching look into their own religion and see the ways in which there are commonalities as well as uniqueness and difference," she said. "I think that by looking into the Mormon heart, you look into your own."


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