Helen Whitney

Responding to pointed questions about her recent PBS documentary, "The Mormons," filmmaker Helen Whitney said Friday the criticism she gets most is over her insistence not to label the people she interviewed on camera as either Mormon or not.

It was a conscious choice, she said, "and I stand by it.... I wanted each of you to listen with your heart and not give anyone more or less credence because they were Mormon or not," she told hundreds of people attending the annual meetings of the Mormon History Association in the Salt Lake Hilton.

Whitney said she has talked to many non-Mormon friends who watched the documentary and told her, "I wasted so much time because I didn't know whom to trust" — which she said was "precisely the point."

Countering that built-in skepticism by failing to provide labels required audiences to listen carefully before making a judgment about credibility, she said, adding that she has had the same criticism from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The four-hour, two-part documentary aired nationally on PBS's "American Experience" and "Frontline" last month, generating record-breaking television ratings for KUED in Utah and substantial viewer interest across the nation because of Mitt Romney's bid for the GOP presidential nomination.

When asked what she would have included in her film if she'd had another hour, Whitney didn't hesitate: "An entire act of faith stories — of people who came to the faith, had questions about it, stepped back from it and, in some cases, are returning to it," she said.

She interviewed more than 1,000 people for the project, many of whom had poignant stories to share about their intersection with a religion that is widely misunderstood, and which some feel misunderstands them.

Talking with a woman who had left the faith with her scholar-husband, Whitney asked her how she felt, and "she couldn't stop weeping for 10 minutes," because she realized "I had lost my compass" in life. "I didn't believe and I couldn't go back," the woman told her, adding that "every single day of (my) life, (I) ache for it."

The standing-room-only audience viewed a segment of the documentary titled "Exiles and Dissenters," featuring University of Utah classics professor Margaret Toscano talking about the details of her excommunication from the faith more than a decade ago for writings advocating that women should hold the church's priesthood.

Brief remarks by President Boyd K. Packer and Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the church's Council of the Twelve were also featured in the segment, who said that the church has the right to sanction members who publicly advocate positions in opposition to church teaching.

Afterward, two academics with differing views responded about the segment.

Mario DePillis, emeritus professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, lauded it as "one of the best documentaries ever done on any religion." But he said Whitney's underlying theme for that segment — that Mormons don't confront their history — "is a half-truth" because Mormon historians "conscientiously try to confront the messy aspects of it."

He questioned Whitney's use of imagery during the segment when Toscano was speaking about her excommunication. It showed a dark, empty room with old wooden chairs lined up opposing a single chair. The image "reminded me of the Darrow Monkey Trial," he said.

Several in the audience questioned Whitney about other visual images they found disconcerting. She said she used them as "visual metaphors" for what people she interviewed felt, rather than as actual depictions of a physical reality.

Richard Bennett, a professor of church history at Brigham Young University, said the film "missed the opportunity to be balanced and accurate" regarding intellectual debate and criticism within the church. He said being a Mormon intellectual is not synonymous with being a dissident and panned the idea that Latter-day Saints follow their leaders blindly.

Also, Mormons should not be judged by what happened during the Mountain Meadows Massacre 150 years ago "any more than Catholics should be judged by the Inquisition" or "Muslims by terrorist extremists," he said.

Whitney responded that in her interviews with people across the spectrum from deep faith to disbelief, she encountered many LDS intellectuals who have "considerable fear of touching on third-rail issues" that they shy away from because "it's not worth what might happen.

"I heard a lot of that, and I don't think that's a spiritually healthy environment. I've had conversations with many who love this church but have fear," she said.

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com