FLDS stands for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, one of the biggest churches under Mormonian fundamentalism in the United States of America. It has been infamous for its practices of polygamy, and its President, Warren Jeffs, who was arrested for child sexual assault and is currently serving a life sentence plus twenty years.
Keep Sweet, a documentary by Don Argott, renowned for his take on the controversy surrounding Dr Albert C Barnes’ collection of art in his documentary, The Art of the Steal, deals with one of the branches of this extreme Mormon FLDS church. This community-built a town in the middle of the high desert in Colorado City, Arizona, believing it to be a kind of ‘utopia’ on earth based on the principles of community building by the grace of the Heavenly Father. We are introduced to it right at the start of the documentary through a series of panoramic overhead shots. As soon as the documentary starts unfurling the dynamics among the members of this community, on both personal and societal levels, it becomes clear to us that the topic at hand is not only sensitive in nature but features a certain complexity that requires judicious handling.
There is a sense of foreboding right at the beginning of ”Keep Sweet’ when sepia-tinted images of public spaces in this community from the past are juxtaposed with their current deserted states. The shared sense of community feeling, the ‘utopia’ that they had built for themselves, are disrupted when their polygamous practices are exposed. Hostility spikes hereon, beginning with the building of walls outside the homes to keep away public or foreign gaze.
The mostly linear narrative draws a clear history of the community from its early days to now. It utilizes photos, old videos, personal memories, and experiences to construct this community from multiple loci. However, the tricky thing about constructing the past through memorabilia is that we are always at the risk of projecting the perception of reality, rather than the reality itself.
While we are let into the narratives of ardent followers of Warren Jeffs and his teachings, we are also simultaneously let into the minds of those who struggled to escape the community realizing how it was closing in on their personal freedoms. There are a multitude of characters and voices, which can get a little confusing if your attention is threatening to loiter. Their stories and the sides they choose because of their belief system are worth contemplation, proving to be indispensable milestones in this documentary.
In one of the most remarkable confessions, out of a series, about the practices of polygamy within the community, we come to know how two sisters being married in the same family helped the elder one; she was busy taking care of her daughter in the hospital when the young sister was bringing up her two boys at home. By the end of the documentary, the number of characters opining on screen has increased, making it feel like a family album of confessions easy to lose your way around.
We watch the community evolve through its darker years into the fairly recent democratic practices. Curiously enough, there is only one mention of the patriarchal order controlling the lives of the women, which definitely demanded more attention during its 100 plus hours runtime because it seems like an interesting angle to explore. Instead, we are brought back to the questions around the community, familial feelings, and the idea of belongingness, even if it meant adapting oneself to the changing American socio-political orders but with restrictions. As I said, the trouble with memorabilia is that we only get a taste of what reality might be like, never knowing what it actually is.
Unfortunately, ‘KeepSweet’ remains puzzled in its targeted objectivity, leaning sympathetically towards the community time and again. It is perhaps due to the director’s personal involvement and experience with the people of this community over the years.
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Warren Jeffs is imprisoned, families are swapped around as if it were a game of cards, public schools are shut down, young men are sent away from their families, girls are prescribed clothes and hairstyles to abide by, among other things, but Norma Richter and Lori Barlow, two elders of this community, do not believe that anything remotely amoral or problematic might have occurred in their community. They seem to ask the audience to step out of their hegemonic ideas and view polygamy in a different light.
However, we are never introduced to experts – jurymen or police – who will present counter opinions. Only a few from the community realize their situation; the rest of the judgment is left up to the moral compass of the audience. The one-sidedness increases as the documentary stress more upon the state’s malpractices against the community, introducing more voices to support the community and not sufficient critiques of them.
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Keep Sweet is one of the key phrases in the prayer that the community chanted like the Catholic’s Our Father Who Art in Heaven. It came like Welcome-signs, boldly carved on the walls of houses in this community. This documentary, by the same name, becomes a metaphor for the shameful reality this community is being subjected to every day. It further questions whether it is possible to rebuild the community feel that once manifested in the same space. Sadly, we are hinted towards the answer – since the people are no longer similar to how they were in the olden days, it is impossible to generate the same feelings. The prototype of an answer defeats the point of this build-up.
However, it is both insightful and informative about the FLDS and the extremities of their belief system. The occasional tape recordings featuring the voice of Warren Jeffs is eerie, to tell the least, and it manages to captivate your attention, despite yourself. Keep Sweet premiers exclusively on Discovery+ 24th November onward.