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Photo courtesy IRI
Blair Treu is the writer and director of the LDS Church news documentary, "Meet the Mormons."
We need everyone’s wisdom and insight and spiritual strength. Each member of this church as an individual is a critical element of the body of the church. —Matthew Bowman

SALT LAKE CITY — No LDS Church leader is interviewed, no unique doctrine is explained and the movie doesn't specifically feature Temple Square or church headquarters.

To some observers, those features of "Meet the Mormons" — which now has made more than $5.25 million and is still in 128 theaters around the country — makes the documentary about the lives of six Latter-day Saint families different from past church-produced movies.

The film highlights a recent and increasingly apparent shift toward allowing members to represent the church more directly, even in official church productions. Maybe especially in church productions, such as the "I'm a Mormon" campaign, Mormon Messages and now "Meet the Mormons."

"I think the central idea here really goes along with a lot of what has been going on with the church the past 50 years, and that is the idea that the marrow of Mormonism is lived experience, and how people function in the church and what the church does in people's lives," said Matthew Bowman, author of "The Mormon People: The Making of An American Faith" and a history instructor at Bowling Green State University.

That's how director Blair Treu pitched the film after the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requested proposals in 2011 for a new film for its Legacy Theater next to Temple Square, which draws 5 million visitors a year.

"We wanted to help people see the blessings that come from living the gospel," producer Jeff Roberts said.

Wide latitude

Church leaders greenlighted "Meet the Mormons" without a script and without knowing which members would represent the faith in the film. The First Presidency only asked Treu to create a sample trailer of what the film would look and feel like.

He spent a day each with families on four continents. When leaders approved the film, he asked them if they had direction about who, what and where he should shoot.

They left that to him.

"Their only charge was to be authentic and real," he said.

One of the two leaders most involved in overseeing the film was Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who gave a widely shared talk at BYU's Education Week in August in which he said church members should engage in social media but be sure their messages are "truthful, honest, and accurate."

Sometimes, Roberts said, members don't realize the power of their own story. That was the case with Dawn Armstrong, whose raw, poignant story as a single, teenage mother who found joy, peace and stability through Christ and the LDS Church, anchors "Meet the Mormons."

"I hope the days are long gone when we paint a picture of people and put people on a pedestal and it's so hard to reach that people get discouraged," Treu said. "Let's set the bar high, but let's also set it realistically so people can say, 'Yeah, if Dawn Armstrong can get to where she is by this very difficult road she's traveled, by darn, I can do it, too.’ ”

Treu made an unscripted film for the church 30 years ago. "Called to Serve" was a documentary about missionaries.

The pitches were similar, he said. Follow the missionaries and members and let them tell their own stories.

"So it's actually not the first time the church has done this," Treu said. "I am surprised, though, that it's taken some time for that concept to catch on. It did catch on with the 'I'm a Mormon' campaign, and we get a little sense of that in the Mormon Messages sometimes.

During the editing process, Roberts said the biggest concern expressed by church leaders came as they viewed separate, uncut versions of each story. At the time, the stories were twice as long as the finished product, and the feedback centered chiefly on concern "Meet the Mormons" would be too long.

New wave

"I think they trusted us," Roberts said. "Blair has a great track record. They knew what they were getting from him. But also I think it shows a great trust in the membership."

The trust in the format is relatively new, though seeds of the same idea can be found in the 4-year-old "I'm a Mormon" campaign and in changes to Mormon missionary lessons. Thirty years ago they were scripted. In the current missionary manual, "Preach My Gospel," which was rooted in changes proposed in 1999, they are not.

Treu saw the format as the most meaningful way to share stories today.

"The whole idea of documentary-based or reality-based I think is really catching on in a big way because audiences demand that," he said. "They want to see reality. They want to see what it's really like. They don't want to see sensationalism. I think they want to see the truth.

"This is who we really are."

Bowman said he sees more talks by church leaders in the faith's general conferences that urge members to do good, be good people and live good lives.

"I think that's what's driving the 'I'm a Mormon' campaign and this documentary. They are saying, 'We want to show what we experience as members.’ ”

"In some ways," he added, "the campaign and the documentary are aspirational. They are saying, this is what we'd like the church to be. That bodes well for the church in the future."

Bowman pointed to the talk given by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency in the church's general conference a year ago in which he said, "regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this church."

At this month's general conference, President Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said the church needs those of every race and nationality, the young and old, married and single, rich and poor, converts and those descended from pioneers.

"We need everyone’s wisdom and insight and spiritual strength. Each member of this church as an individual is a critical element of the body of the church."

Bowman said "the idea on the whole is to show the church is made up of diverse members and is not a monolith, that you can be a Mormon in a variety of ways. This has been going on for a little while and generally is a good thing."

Treu and Roberts emphasized authenticity among criteria they used to select stories for the movie.

"People are really savvy today, and they know when something isn't real," Treu said. "They are very sophisticated. This is at the core of why I pitched the project in the first place, and that was to create something authentically, with real, live families who are not perfect, who have struggles, who are in the midst of those struggles and who have learned as a result of those, and who are open enough and honest enough to share that with us."

Roberts said, "Members come from all walks of life, and they have varying hobbies, careers and interests. We wanted to show what our membership is really like, to show that diversity, but we also wanted to show what the common core between all those is, that there is also great unity in our faith and faith in Jesus Christ."

The distributor of "Meet the Mormons" predicted Tuesday the film could be in theaters through Thanksgiving and could last beyond the first of the year.

The movie was in 333 theaters last week, but is pulling back in many areas. However, it is adding theaters in areas where the movie hasn't been yet, like Philadelphia, St. Louis, Baton Rouge and Rochester, N.Y., distributor Brandon Purdie said.

"Meet the Mormons" made $189,846 in 128 theaters over the weekend. It added another $84,000 on Monday, Purdie said.

The film is now the 35th biggest documentary of all-time at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo, which excludes large format films, concert films, compilations and reality TV movies. IMDB's list has a broader definition of the genre and ranks "Meet the Mormons" at No. 88.