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Sons of Perdition: Measom & Merten

Meet the directors of the extraordinary story of three boys who left the controversial Warren Jeffs FLDS sect and struck out on their own. See it Monday at TC Doc Series!


Note: This interview was first published as part of our 2010 Tribeca Film Festival coverage.

 

 

In the process of making a documentary about three boys who left Warren Jeffs' sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten became much more than outsiders and filmmakers. Sons of Perdition is an emotionally engaging and shocking look at the FLDS Church through the eyes of Sam, Joe, and Bruce, three teens who decided that life inside the Crick, aka Colorado City, AZ, among the strict polygamists under Warren Jeffs' control, was not what they wanted for themselves. Once out, though, they had nowhere to go—no job prospects, home, or family, and very little education to boot. As the teens struggle, and Joe's family tries to escape as well, Measom and Merten got a firsthand look at the inner workings of the FLDS church and the complex problem of its lost boys, as well as the difficulties of remaining neutral journalists in the face of injustice.

 



TribecaFilm.com: In your own words, tell me about Sons of Perdition.

 

Jennilyn Merten:
I think there's a whole sort of political side to the movie—and not just to the movie, but to the issues. When we got started, there was a lot about the politics and the kids getting kicked out and the church and polygamy up in Utah, but I think as we got further into the filming and into the post-production, we realized that this is really a story—an emotional story—a portrait of these three boys. And to tell the best story, it had to come from that place; it had to come from a place of character and from intimacy and telling the story of what's happening in the community and the tensions in the community through the boys.

 

Tyler Measom:
It's not simply just a coming-of-age story of kids and where they're going to live: where are these kids going to stay and how are they going to survive in a world they don't know anything about? It's deeper than that. And those [issues] may have been covered by the news... But being told you're going to hell: a lot of people will never understand the consequences of being ingrained with [the idea that] you will go to hell, and hell is this awful, fiery, horrible place, and these kids make [what they think is] a conscious choice to literally go to hell, and that is brave and scary at the same time.

 

JM:
Some of them, like Sam, one of our main characters, really did understand a lot more of what he was giving up, but a lot of them, they're just so fed up and frustrated and pushed to the edge and deliberately marginalized by this religion that says, "We've got to get rid of some of these boys..." One of our experts [in the documentary] says, "Everybody knows they've gotta go." And the big debate was, are they getting rid of the boys as competition for wives? And the answer is yes, but it's also about obedience and creating a perfect society where you are perfectly obedient and everything is completely controlled.

 

Warren Jeffs basically was... a student of Hitler; he was studying how to make a perfect society and was cleansing his flock, and so [if] you didn't toe the line, you were out. So yes, they are competition for the brides, but it's a much more complex societal cleansing process than simply a numbers game.

 

A lot of have asked us, "What about the girls?" Because so much of what's been in the news has been women and polygamy, and obviously we think that's very critical, but we wanted to tell the story of the women, again, through the eyes of the boys. And so you get a portrait of the community and a portrait of the women's lives through the window of the boys' perspective. In a way, it's much more poignant that way—you see how women are treated through their sons, and [one of the] boys saying, "My dad tried to get mom pregnant again. She's 44 and this is her 15th child." And you see their heartache for their mothers—

 

TM:
And sisters.

 

JM:
And sisters. For us, we got pulled into this story in a very material way. Tyler and I went through six escape attempts with this 14-year-old girl who was going to be married, and so you see this [but] you see the story through her brother Joe as he tries to rescue her. It's a very different world when you are involved. We never intended to get that involved, but once you're in... People talk about journalistic objectivity, but objectivity is itself a construct... Once you get involved and once you turn on a camera, you're always framing something. We realized that it was more ethical to stay involved than to be bystanders. But that's a tricky thing to negotiate.

 

 

TribecaFilm.com: There's a literal tug of war with the police and the families. Were you involved at all?

 

JM:
I don't know how much we can say on tape.

 

TM:
I was arrested in Colorado City, literally put in handcuffs, pulled away, and charged with misleading an officer for not turning in one of the boys.

 

JM:
Let's just say we [pause]... When the law is not protecting a 14-year-old girl from getting married and pregnant, you break the law to protect the higher ideal. And we did. And we sheltered people when we felt like the law was not going its job.

 

TribecaFilm.com: Can you talk about some of the other people that are involved, like Jon Krakauer, who wrote Under the Banner of Heaven. It says in the movie that he's an adoptive parent as well.

 

TM:
We changed that [in the final cut] but yes, he took in one of the kids and helped him, got him into college. He's still taking care of him. He doesn't live with him any more, but he took care of him. And you have to, in a way, and Jon even said this. It's not in the film, but Jon realized... He said to us, "I've gone much further than any journalist should." How can you not? When you see these things, when you have these things happen... Jon Krakauer lived... in that community for a year—

 

JM:
He went undercover.

 

TM:
He was instrumental in bringing down Warren Jeffs. He and Sam Brower, who is also in the film, tailed Warren Jeffs; they searched for him, they looked for him, by plane, all over.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What attracted you to this story?

 

TM:
Living in Utah, it was hard to escape it being in the news, and it was always present. Of course, it's an interesting subject, and many people have actually attempted [similar projects], but we always knew there was something beyond that. They always just talked about what was on the surface with these kids. Jenni and I had left the Mormon Church—we were both Mormons, not FLDS, just the mainstream Mormon church. [We had] very active families, very Mormon families. We didn't have the same problems that those kids did. You know, I can still see my parents—

 

JM:
It was a really big struggle, and it changed our lives. It was a huge turning point.

 

TM:
You're ostracized just a bit by your family and your community, and you're told it's wrong... [It's ingrained in you that] you will go to hell. It takes a long time to shake that. It's very difficult to acknowledge that I am now this person, and I don't know why, but the way I was raised is not right for me. So we knew that it was a little deeper than just that.

 

 

TribecaFilm.com: What are some of the new things in the final cut?

 

JM:
One piece of advice we got after we showed a rough cut to Sam Brower, the investigator, he basically said, "Don't be afraid to take the gloves off. There are horrific crimes being committed, and you've been witness to them, and you go ahead and nail Warren Jeffs to the wall." And so we were able to get some photos that are new that nobody's seen yet.

 

TM:
Years ago, when Warren Jeffs was placed on the FBI's Most Wanted list, he literally confiscated every photo from every member in the community. That's why there are so few photos. And so for three years, three and a half years, we couldn't find any. We found very few photos of Warren Jeffs. Not too long ago, less than a month ago, somebody gave us some photos, never before seen, of Warren Jeffs—certain photos of Warren Jeffs with girls, 13-year-old girls, open-mouthed kissing these young girls, with lines of wives, with wives all around him. Old men with girls sitting on their laps. These stories that this person told me about 13-year-old daughters being traded for 14-year-old daughters...

 

Warren Jeffs, he's a psychopath, as far as I'm concerned. He's a sexually addicted deviant who has been raised to lie and cheat and get away with it his whole life because he's a special person. And this man, because of his need and lust for power and sex, Joe can't read well. There's a direct correlation to that. I saw these photos, and the first thing [that] comes in your head is, "My God, I can't believe I'm seeing these things." CNN would kill for these pictures. And then as I watch them, and I sneak in, and I saw these photos and I looked at them, I just had this obligation... [to] these 13-year-old girls with these swollen, pregnant bellies.

 

JM:
We have a picture that nobody's seen yet of a 13-year-old girl pregnant.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What do you think the ripple effect of this film will be?

 

JM:
We hope that through outreach and through the publicity of the film that there will be a different approach politically to dealing with this [situation]. Because, you know, when [the incident in] Texas did happen, they basically went in and did what they did in 1953, which is just go in, [do] a single big raid, and throw money and politics at it, and it did nothing. And that's where the polygamist community is very savvy. All they have to do is look beleaguered and show shots of kids being torn away from their parents, and you know, they win.

 

TM:
We need education [for the kids]. You can't survive in this world without education. You just can't... I was driving around Colorado City not too long ago, and there were kids running around and playing, and I was actually looking [and thinking], "That's great! There are kids running around and playing." Because for years, they couldn't leave their house. And then I realized, "My God, it's Tuesday at 11 o'clock. These kids shouldn't be running around and playing. These kids should be in school."

 

JM:
That's maybe one place where we do feel like the Utah state government and the Arizona state government do need to put pressure on the community, [and] to hold them accountable to educational standards. If they're going to pull their kids out of public school, they should be held to home school standards... The state's paying for it now anyway, with all these runaways and homeless kids running around, uneducated, not able to contribute in the way they should, and they're going to pay for it one way or another. They have a moral and social obligation to make sure that these kids are educated. That should be one place where I think the government should stand its ground, aside from welfare fraud, but that's another story.

 

 

TribecaFilm.com: What are your hopes for showing the film at The Tribeca Film Festival?

 

TM:
Obviously, we want as many people to watch it and like it [as possible], but that's par for the course. We want it to open people's eyes. I know that's what everyone makes a documentary or a film about, but we really want people to go, "I can't believe this is happening." But more than that, and this sounds silly, but Jenni and I want people, after they watch this, to reconnect with a loved one. A sister, a brother that they haven't talked to in a while, or hug their mom, or realize what they have in their life.

 

JM:
Go make a phone call. I want someone, after this film, to get up and go call somebody that they've cut off. You have so many people that are completely out of touch, especially [because of] religion... We also want to start an outreach movement for these kids, and for anyone else who wants to leave there.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What's the craziest or most intense moment you had while making this film?

 

JM:
I think probably that moment when [Joe's sister] Hilary jumped in our car. We went out there to help Joe look for Mother, and it's dark and we're sitting outside the house in a car, and all of a sudden Sam runs out and comes up to us with a plastic bag full of clothes and says, "She wants to come with us!" This little 14-year-old girl is racing [over] and the father's there, he's in the shop, and everybody's freaked out, and they're racing across the yard and get in our car! And what do you do? It was one of those moments where we just realized we are deep in this story and there's no turning back.

 

TribecaFilm.com: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker, alive or dead, who would it be?

 

TM:
It's easy for me. I'm a Scorsese fan. Who isn't? That's too easy, but by and large, I respect Soderbergh because of the diverse wealth of work that he does. But as far as documentary-makers, we're really partial to friends of ours...

 

JM:
Heidi [Ewing] and Rachel [Grady] from Jesus Camp, and we did get to have dinner with them... so that was amazing. They were two that we really looked at, and we could see the progression of their films, we could see how they'd gotten started, and they were dealing with young kids, and that was really inspiring to us to watch them make these really heartfelt, curious, inquisitive movies, and we got to meet them, and they've been kind of like older siblings for us. Very supportive.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What kind of media—art, movies, TV, whatever—are you recommending to friends lately?

 

TM:
I just finished Catch-22 and I'm surprised I'm 38 years old and I didn't read what I think is one of the greatest American novels of all time [before now].

 

JM:
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and I think it's really great in terms of documentary [filmmaking]. It's basically saying... it's in the process of getting lost that you find exactly what you're looking for.

 



Tribeca Cinemas Doc Series:
Sons of Perdition

 

Monday, September 13, 2010
7:30 pm

The Tribeca Cinemas bar will be open before and after the screening—stop in for a drink and mingle with other movie lovers.

 



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