The First Great Mormon Film?

January 6, 2004 | 10 comments
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No, this post is not about a Richard Dutcher movie (though Brigham City was interesting and well-acted). I am referring to Tasha Oldham’s remarkable documentary, “The Smith Family.”

I stumbled across “The Smith Family” late one night on “thirteen” — New York City’s PBS station. It is a documentary about a Mormon family (Steve, Kim, and two teenage sons) in Salt Lake City. Steve came out as gay (and actively so) on the couple’s ninth anniversary. Three years later, Kim was diagnosed as HIV positive. Steve eventually contracts full-blown AIDS.

The film centers on Kim’s decision to stay married to and support Steve, and her attempt to deal with both the personal devastation resulting from Steve’s actions, and the real world difficulty of caring for a dying spouse. I have rarely seen a more powerful portrait of what it means to forgive and love, even when the task would seem impossible.

While Steve struggles mightily with his belief in Mormonism, Kim and her sons remain faithfully involved in the Church. One of the more touching scenes is the older boy’s missionary farewell, and Steve’s participation in that event. Oldham somehow is granted access to the most personal, intimate moments in the family’s life, and each of the family members reveals their own thoughts in interviews. But Oldham deftly avoids becoming maudlin or voyeuristic. It compares well to great documentaries such as Hoop Dreams and Fighter. In all three, the story ends up in a far different place than the filmmaker imagined.

The film is an affirmation of the possibility of love, unity, and faith in God even in the throes of physical and emotional upheaval. Its truly an astonishing and inspirational document, and I cannot think of a film made by a Mormon or about Mormons that comes close to achieving what “The Smith Family” does.

Look for it on your local PBS station, as part of their “P.O.V.” series. Unfortunately, for now the movie is only available for purchase on VHS through Small Town Productions. I have heard that a DVD may be forthcoming.

For further reading, here is an overview of the film; a bio on Oldham; an interview with Oldham; and another interview.

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10 Responses to The First Great Mormon Film?

  1. Brent on January 7, 2004 at 1:36 pm

    My brothers are good friends with Parker Smith and know the family well. In fact, my brother is in a scene in the film at a birthday party for someone. I have only seen a couple of snippets of the film, but my wife watched the entire movie. The actual story of what this family has gone through as a result of the father’s infidelity is not quite as awe-inspiring as is suggested. Nor was my wife very impressed with the film. She was extremely concerned about how negatively the Church was portrayed and the extent to which homosexuality was promoted by the film. Again, knowing some of the actual story, I find it difficult to claim that the film is an “affirmation of the possibility of love, unity, and faith in God even in the throes of physical and emotional upheaval” when the experience has had such a deliterious impact on the family members and has led them (or some of them) away from the church and even in opposition to the church.

  2. Greg on January 7, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    Hi Brent,

    Perhaps as in our back and forth on the Chieko Okasaki thread, we just have an “eye of the beholder” problem here.

    First, I should be clear that I am talking about the quality of the film only. I don’t know anything about the family or how awe-inspiring or not the ultimate results (the “actual story”) of this experience are.

    I disagree with your wife that the church was “portrayed negatively” in any way. Does she have specific examples? I also disagree that the film “promotes homosexuality.” That is simply paranoid and totally unwarranted. Examples?

    The central figure of the story, Kim, remains strong in her family and her faith; and that is the essence of the film and why I called it inspiring. The fact that Steve struggles with his faith as he’s dying, and that the younger brother has his own difficulties, does not change that. After all, the scriptures are inspiring even with all that Laman and Lemuel stuff, no? Do we need a narrator saying “and thus we see that….” to find inspiration in a story?

    In any event, see the film and decide for yourself.

  3. Aaron Brown on January 7, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    I never did see the PBS airing of the film, but I did see an advance screening at Sunstone West a short time before it aired. (Note: If any of my comments below don’t make sense, it may be because the final editing process rendered them moot). Like Greg, I found the film deeply moving, and I was amazed at the unfettered access Oldham had into the life of the Smith family.

    I don’t agree with Greg, though, that the Church was not portrayed negatively “in any way.” The biggest problem with the film, in my view, was that it did not make clear what the crux of the problem between Steve and the LDS Church actually was. Was the Church’s problem with Steve (and his problem with the Church) about his homosexual orientation per se, or was it something more? I found myself confused after the screening about exactly what the source of the tension precisely was. I was not the only one. I spoke with Oldham after the screening, and she acknowledged to me that some issues (issues I thought were crucial) were left unclear. The effect of all this, in my view, was to do the Church something of a disservice as it surely must have left a non-LDS viewer confused as to what the LDS Church’s stand regarding its homosexual members actually is. I’m not saying the film should have sermonized on the orientation/act distinction ad nauseum, but it at least would have been fairer to make clear where the Church was coming from. (There were also some sequencing problems with certain scenes involving the older son’s mission, but now I’m nit-picking…)

    Having said this, I don’t share Brent’s wife’s reaction to the film. Yes, certain characters were having struggles with the Church – does this really come as a surprise to anyone? However you come down on various questions regarding homosexuality, I simply don’t think the portrayals of religious angst should be seen as offensive. The characters’ relationships with the Church are details in a film that really isn’t about Mormonism, homosexuality, or AIDS as such, as much as it is about one particular family that is dealing with un unbelievable heart-wrenching set of circumstances.

    Incidently, as a good friend of a good friend of Tasha Oldham, I have had a couple of opportunities to speak with her regarding the film and its aftermath. Apparently, the vast majority of LDS responses to the film that she’s received have been overwhelmingly positive (with certain, very vocal, exceptions). (Of course, I shouldn’t make too much of this. As I’ve learned from my own experiences teaching Elder’s Quorum, people who like what you have to say tell you, and people who don’t often keep quiet! :> ). Also, the Bishop of one of the Singles Wards here in Los Angeles screened the film at ward Family Home Evening, and it was apparently well-received (again, with exceptions).

    Aaron B

  4. Greg on January 7, 2004 at 4:00 pm

    Thanks for your comments Aaron. You say that the biggest problem with the film is that it does not explore the problem between Steve and the Church. I agree that the film doesn’t explore that issue, but I don’t think that undermines what the film is *about*, which is how Kim deals with everything.

    From Oldham’s interview with the BBC:

    BBC Four: And did Steve take any persuading about making the film?
    TO: He was incredibly supportive and cooperative. He had a whole other story. We had hours and hours of footage of his story and it definitely could have taken us in a very different direction. But I wanted to keep the focus on Kim and her decision. His struggle with the Church and his homosexuality was a whole other film and not my agenda.

    It seems that your criticism is that Oldham should have made a different movie than the one she did make. She was not trying to inform people about the Church’s stance on homosexuality, or evaluate that stance; and I think that was a wise move on her part.

  5. Brent on January 7, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    I will have to see the film before I can fully comment on it, but let me just make one further observation. Clearly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is there something “inspiring” about a person who “remains strong in her family and her faith?” Sure. However, I find Kim’s story to be profoundly sad, especially given the current media-driven promotion of homosexuality, which is devastating lives and families around the world. It is wonderful that Kim maintain faith and was able to forgive and love her husband. It is also great to see that her ward and church members generally have done the right thing for her family by extending the hand of love and fellowship. Nevertheless, there are some truly disheartening aspect to the story as well. Kim’s husband’s infidelity and sin led to his death. Her youngest son has serious issues about life and faith. Should we applaud Kim’s faith and devotion to family? Absolutely. But, my impression of the film from my wife’s comments to me about the film (and you should know that my wife is much more open minded than I am–I am the paranoid one) is that there was not much in the way of warning or promotion of moral ideals in the film. There was, as Aaron notes above, confusion about the church’s stand on homosexuality. Undoubtedly, I am coming off as overly critical, and that without having seen the film, so I guess I will shut up now. As in anything, there are many views and stories to tell that branch out of one life or life’s experiences. Kim’s personal struggle with her husband’s problem likely is extremely uplifting and inspiring. I guess, I guess I just have trouble singling out that one vantage point when there are so many other stories that branch off of or out of her experience. (It’s a new year– something to work on for me.)

  6. Brent on February 15, 2004 at 7:13 pm

    Here is a Deseret News story that tells how the Smith family is doing 2 years following the release of the film. Good article.

  7. Brent on February 15, 2004 at 7:13 pm
  8. Greg Call on February 19, 2004 at 7:45 pm

    Just found this comment Brent. Thanks for the link. Sounds like the family has kept their faith in the gospel through it all. And I respect Kim’s refusal to sell her story to Hollywood.

  9. Connie Anast on February 26, 2004 at 3:45 pm

    I was one of the priviledged few who was able to see the screening of The Smith Family at the U before it aired on PBS through an invitation of Tasha’s. She and I went to HS together (and I had the joy of directing her once…).

    I thought the documentary was not harsh on the church in the slightest. I was raised here in Utah, am a lesbian, non-mormon, and I felt the question raised on that subject related more to Steve’s feelings of abandonment and isolation from the activities of the church while dis-fellowshipped, not the faith itself.

    If I remember correctly, he voiced his opinion that he felt the church was somehow between him and the Lord and he would go through the church to get there. Of course, I am paraphrasing, but that is what I got out of it.

    I think she did a remarkable job, especially (and probably) because of her faith. She showed a lot of sensitivity, but didn’t shy away from showing the “bad” things.

    What a lot of viewers didn’t see, and what I was blessed to, was the reaction in the screening room at the U. We were able to talk with Kim, other family members, and many were there to voice there opinions. The energy that flowed in that room was as strong and as true as anything.

    Nothing you saw on the screen was contrived. Kim does have that character, faith and unwaivering love for Steve and the LDS church. And I am proud of what Kim, her family, and Tasha brought to the screen.

    Kudos!

  10. Greg Call on February 26, 2004 at 3:56 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts, Connie. As my comments show, I totally agree with your take on the film. I hope that more people can find it.