SALT LAKE CITY — From its beginning, one goal of "Meet the Mormons" was to feature Latter-day Saints who represented the worldwide, ethnically and geographically diverse membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Producers of "Meet the Mormons" also looked for Mormons to feature who were authentic, genuinely lived the gospel and were willing to open their homes to a film crew, said Blair Treu, the film's executive producer, writer and director.
"We looked for individuals and stories that represent the broad array of the church," Treu said. "We can't hope to do that in five or nine stories, but we do the best we can to get a broad representation."
Three more 20-minute vignettes — "The Horseman," "The Artist" and "The Entertainers" — became part of the "Meet the Mormons" collection last week. The original six have been re-edited with new, never-before-seen footage and made into stand-alone features. The nine documentary-style segments will be shown in rotation at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building's Legacy Theater (see templesquare.com/legacy-theater for a schedule) and at other LDS Church visitors centers.
Those featured in the new short films were introduced at a recent media event. They include horse trainer Jeff Wadman and his wife, Emily, of Morgan, Utah; artist Giovanna Raccosta Nezhati, an Italian native who lives in Las Vegas and delights in serving her community; and the Kawamitsus, a Japanese family consisting of two brothers, Aiki and Akashi, and two sisters, Kanasa and Akino, who make up a pop music group called bless4.
Like the original six, these new faces and stories convey an inspirational and spiritual message, Treu said.
"It’s authentic and it shows how the lives of individuals and families are improved by living the gospel of Jesus Christ," Treu said. "That is really at the meat of all the stories. How is my life better? How has my life been impacted by living the gospel and following the example of the Savior? That was at the heart of each of these stories."
Jeff Wadman, a horse trainer who lives on a ranch in Morgan, said he met Treu at a family function, although they knew each other before. Treu started asking the horse trainer questions about horses and the correlation between horses and the way God works with man, Wadman said.
"(Treu) said, 'That sounds like a Mormon Message,'" Wadman said. "It was supposed to be one of those three-minute YouTube videos where ‘I’m Jeff, I’m a cowboy and I’m a Mormon.’ (Treu) came up, and they kept filming and filming but later told me they were going to use it for something a bit bigger."
The hardest part of the process, Wadman said, was going from living a quiet country life to being followed constantly by a camera crew. The Wadmans were even filmed while attending sacrament meeting one Sunday. It was challenging but also a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the couple said.
"It was difficult, to say the least," Jeff Wadman said. "I work alone most days with horses, so to be bombarded, it was pretty overwhelming in a great way."
In their vignette, the Wadmans express their belief in traditional marriage and family relationships. Emily Wadman said the experience strengthened their marriage and their faith. Looking back, they are grateful for the experience and learned some good lessons along the way. They hope audiences who see their story see the value of the family unit, Jeff Wadman said.
"The Lord spares no expense in the salvation of people," Jeff Wadman said. "For me, that is something I have come to realize: that God loves his children and wants them back. That’s what I’ve learned through this."
Those who've seen the bonus features of the "Meet the Mormons" DVD will know something about Giovanna Nezhati; that's where her story was originally featured.
She joined the church at a young age and served an LDS mission. She eventually emigrated to the United States, married and settled in Las Vegas. Her husband was not a member of the LDS Church and she went inactive for a time, Nezhati said.
A significant part of Nezhati's story stems from a dream she had one night. She felt prompted to start a program that involved feeding the homeless a nice dinner once a month at a local shelter. In the process, she welcomed help from people of all faiths and backgrounds, and she has made a difference in many lives, according to the film.
When she was contacted by Treu to be part of "Meet the Mormons," she thought there had been a mistake. Why would they want to feature a part-member family?
"She represents a significant part of our church," Treu said at the media event. "We felt that should be represented. She represents that very well and can speak with authenticity about that in a way I certainly couldn’t."
Something that stands out about Nezhati's "Meet the Mormons" experience is how her husband felt accepted and appreciated.
"(Treu) liked (my husband) exactly the way he was, didn't want him to change a bit," Nezhati said. "But by the way it happened, it actually changed my husband's perspective of the church. I got him back, got him to understand that we are accepting people and not trying to change anybody. He learned we are there to enrich people's lives, give our love and support."
Nezhati hopes part-member families who see her story take away a message of hope. She encourages everyone to enjoy life and marriage, especially those who are of a different faith.
"They are wonderful people, no matter if they are Mormon or not Mormon," Nezhati said. "Just give your life serving with them. We can do a lot together. Never give up."
Decades before the Kawamitsu siblings became the Japanese pop music group bless4, their parents separately joined the LDS Church in Japan. At some point after that, they met at church and were married. They lived in Utah and Arizona and began raising their family. When their oldest son developed a passion for Jackie Chan and martial arts, it led the family into the entertainment business and back to Japan, the family said.
Over time, they did less martial arts and more music and dance. Along the way, they have promoted their Latter-day Saint values with uplifting lyrics and music, modest dress and wholesome entertainment. In some ways, they said, they see themselves as musical missionaries, and some fans have become interested in the church as a result.
"People have accepted us. They have an understanding for who we are and what we do," Kanasa Kawamitsu said. "There are some who say, 'You would look so good in miniskirts,' but they know it’s not going to happen. They look at us for wholesome entertainment, knowing they can take their kids there and not worry about anything. In that aspect, I’m glad we can do that."
As part of the "Meet the Mormons" filming, the siblings recorded a special arrangement of "I Am a Child of God" that included the youngest brother, Aiki, though he was serving a mission in Los Angeles at the time.
"We believe that through our music and our performance that hopefully we can inspire people to want to know more about the Lord," Akashi Kawamitsu said. "Maybe they can feel something and someday know why."
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