Sons of Perdition (In Exile Films, R)

Another explains that at the Crick, if a man fell out of favor with Jeffs, his wives and children could be taken away from him and given to another man.



Polygamy is illegal everywhere in the United States, but it’s clear that in some parts of the country it is not only practiced but to some degree tolerated. The big question for me has never been how do they get away with it—laws against murder neither prevented lynching nor instilled a fear of prosecution into those committing this crime—but how polygamy is mathematically possible, particularly in a closed community. Boys and girls are born in approximately equal numbers, kidnapping draws too much attention, and as far as we know adult women haven’t exactly been lining up for the chance to enter into a polygamous marriage. So, if every adult man is to have multiple wives, where do the surplus women come from?

One answer is provided in Sons of Perdition, a powerful documentary directed by Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten. As young men in the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) community in Colorado City, Arizona come of age many of them are forced out (for offenses as trivial as listening to music or talking to a girl) or allowed to run away, while the girls are closely guarded and married off at young ages. You may have heard of the Colorado City community because until recently it was led by Warren Jeffs, who in 2007 was convicted of accomplice rape of a 14-year-old girl. [Obligatory disclaimer: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church or Mormon church) prohibits polygamy and members of the FLDS are not Mormons.]

Sons of Perdition takes a look at the lives of some young exiles who left the FLDS community in Colorado City, which they refer to as "the Crick," and settled in nearby Saint George, Utah. Three young men—one 15, the other two 17—are the focus of the film. Stop and think for a minute; how many boys of that age do you know who are ready to function as independent adults? Probably not many, and the FLDS exiles are even less prepared to cope than the average teenager. They’ve been poorly educated, have little knowledge of the world outside the Crick, have no adults to turn to for guidance, and are utterly lacking in financial resources. It’s no wonder that many end up in trouble with the law.

The FLDS exiles featured in Sons of Perdition fare better than you might expect and a "where are they now" coda provides more encouraging news. Granted, the immaturity of these boys is obvious but they’re basically good kids who miss their families and are doing their best to cope with a life that is totally unfamiliar to them. From a distance they could pass for ordinary teenagers who are fond of wearing their baseball caps sideways, hanging out with their friends, drinking beer, and getting high.

But crucial differences soon become clear. These boys and their fellow exiles are astonishingly ignorant (they confuse Bill Clinton and Adolf Hitler, are not clear about which city is the national capital and wonder if Catholics believe in Jesus). They encounter legal obstacles (no permanent address, lack of official ID cards) to enrolling in school or taking a job. They’re essentially homeless, crashing with others in the same circumstances and living for a time with the family of a software engineer. One boy applies for adoption but decides against it when it becomes clear that his potential adoptive parents consider him to be a potential child molester. They make several trips (with all the drama of a bank robbery) back to the Crick to try to retrieve siblings.

Measom and Merten are patient filmmakers who let the story emerge from the film rather than turning it into a series of bullet points. This can be exasperating as the chronology of events is not always clear; in fact it’s not always obvious what is happening at a given moment or why a particular segment is included in the film. But their approach pays off as it allows the viewer to gradually build up a view of the exiles, their current lives, and what life at the Crick was like.

The most astounding information is matter-of-factly dropped into conversation. A girl in her early twenties mentions that she had to leave her four children behind when she escaped. A boy mentions that his mother, now in her forties, is confined to her bed due to health problems associated with her tenth pregnancy. Another explains that at the Crick, if a man fell out of favor with Jeffs, his wives and children could be taken away from him and given to another man (keep that in mind the next time someone tries to argue that polygamy is liberating for women).

The voice of Warren Jeffs, spiritual leader of the Crick community, is heard on tape throughout Sons of Perdition. It’s beyond creepy to hear him dispense "wisdom" like "Eternity is within your reach if you will just live faithful so the prophet can place you properly in marriage" and "There are no monogamous in heaven. The men have many wives and that is the way men become gods and their wives become heavenly mothers." There are times when I wish Measom and Merten had probed more deeply into how Jeffs, who appears as a total nutcase when viewed from outside the community, could wield such power within it. But that’s not the film they chose to make, and by sticking to their own inspiration they have produced a fascinating and troubling documentary. | Sarah Boslaugh


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