Reviewed by Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)
Liahona is not an ethnographic film. It is not even a documentary, or, at least, a documentary of the standard type. Consisting of images shot on scratchy 16 millimeter film using a hand camera, mixed with a wealth of found footage (much of it originally filmed by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, for either missionary or apologetic purposes), and shot through with decontextualized voice-overs, it is not concerned with clear explication, or at least with granting immediate clarity. Rather, it has more of the sense of a piece of symphonic music, with images or scenes briefly introduced, which are returned to again and again in different ways as the film proceeds. Again and again, we are shown shots of the stark landscape and expansive skies of Northern Utah, both of which are presented as sublime (in the Kantian sense of the word). This landscape is repeatedly juxtaposed with vintage shots of quotidian Mormon life, as well as with views of prominent Mormon temples in the region, scenes from the Days of ’47 Parade down Salt Lake City or the Manti Mormon Miracle Pageant. Some of these scenes are eventually given the necessary context to become readable as the film progresses. Other elements, such as the repeated and unexplained use of characters from the desert alphabet, a column of smoke from a scrub wildfire, or the haunting image of a feathered headdress, worn at either dawn or sunset, shrouded in shadow as it is juxtaposed against the Manti Temple, remain unexplained even at the film’s close. (Similarly, the source of the movie’s title goes unexplained for those not familiar with it). The soundtrack is equally jarring; we shunt between thundering church organs, atonal droning, and acapella renditions of iconic Mormon hymns such as “If You Could Hie to Kolob” and “Called to Serve.”
But this is not to say that the film works merely at the aesthetic register, or that it has no narrative. As the stream of images slowly coheres, bits of Mormon history are presented. Through voice overs and shots of Mormons engaging in re-enactments, we are told about the 19th-century persecution, and the resulting exodus to Utah, that the original Saints suffered. Through similar techniques we are briefly introduced to the concept of Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, as the original Prophet, Seer, and Revelator. We are even given a voice over by the excommunicated Mormon scholar D. Michael Quinn reciting a précis of the argument of his book, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. Even milestone rituals in contemporary Mormonism, such as leaving for and returning from missions and Temple marriages, are presented through found footage.
For all the cognitive decentering that results from this collage-like approach, these are still warm and mostly accepting portraits. But that is not the only tone struck. At the film’s mid-point, we are given a series of title cards (presented first in the Deseret alphabet, and then only subsequently in the Latin alphabet) which touch on some of the darker aspects of life in the predominately Mormon state of Utah. Statistical claims regarding the high rate of plastic surgery, abuse of prescription drugs, divorce, suicide, and even the high consumption of internet pornography are given to us, juxtaposed with quotes from current and previous Latter Day Saints Presidents and officials.
The reason for this mixed appraisal of Mormon life becomes clear as the documentary draws to a close. As the found footage and hand camera shots continue to roll, we are given recordings of interviews conducted by the film’s creator, Talena Sanders. Through these talks with relatives and former romantic partners, we are invited to piece together a sort of autobiography by proxy. In this story, Sanders’s imagination is first compelled by the Mormon Church that she had familial ties to; only later does she become disaffected by the limited opportunities she saw as being afforded to young Mormon women. The film ends with two readings. The first is by the film’s creator, reading the text of the resignation letter she sent her bishop (a step in the formal procedure for quitting the LDS church). The second is from a historical document recounting a witness to the killing of Joseph Smith by an angry mob; this witness was so moved by seeing what he understood as ‘supernatural’ events during this lynching that, we are told he later converted to the Mormon Church.
This is therefore not a neutral account by someone without judgment; the somewhat alienating presentation of Mormon history and life is an expression of the filmmaker’s own alienation from the LDS. But alienation here does not quite equate with a sort of blind animus, as the twinned texts read at the ending suggests. The pairing of a contemporary, legalistic text that effectuates a deconversion with an account of a miracle leading to a nineteenth conversion suggests a basic ambivalence. A similar note is struck by one of the film’s closing montages, which shows a translucent image of the filmmaker, in nineteenth century Mormon pioneer garb, on the right-hand side of the screen; on the left, equally translucent, is the filmmaker in contemporary dress, set at the right. The common background here is Utah scrubland, with withered desert bluffs further off at the horizon. Both figures have their backs to the viewer, and both figures slowly turn to mutely face whoever is watching, as if demanding that the viewers bear their witness.
So given this unsettled tone, along with the beautiful, but occasionally hard to track, sensory bluster that takes up significant swaths of the film, it is hard to imagine this as being repurposed as an ethnographic film, unless we have an ethnographic film such as Leviathan in mind. But this does not mean that this film does not have anthropological value or pedagogical use. The question is, then, what does this film tell us as anthropologists, and how might it be used strategically to convey this knowledge to others?
Anthropological work on Christianities, both abroad and in the United States, have made important contributions to pushing back against the secularization hypothesis. It also has done much work in foregrounding the affective, sensory, and material aspects of religiosity. While not as influential as these other streams, there has also been a line of discussion in the anthropology of Christianity in North America that has addressed what might be called the crisis of contemporary conservative religiosity. I mention this because both instances seem apropos of the contemporary Mormon Church. The Mormon Church most definitely has its religious media culture, including its visual aesthetics (though of course some of the practitioners of the tradition have been given more mainline acceptance than others). The same goes for Mormon aural and oral culture, as well. And one of the achievements of this film is the way, through its use of found footage and scenes of public pageants, that it fashions an introduction to that world.
But if belief has an aesthetic, surely doubt must have its own aesthetic, too; and in there is certainly those experiencing doubt within the contemporary Mormon church. A series of Mormon on-line discussion boards, blogs, and podcasts have cohered into something that is often referred to, half-jokingly, as the Bloggernacle. And part of the work done by the Bloggernacle has been to circulate discussions of sensitive topics that had heretofore been chiefly considered only in academic circles, and chiefly accessible only through somewhat restricted intellectually oriented print media such as Sunstone and Dialogue. Discussions of topics such as feminism and LGBTQ rights, along with greater awareness of complex Mormon historical topics such as race, polygamy, translation, and the influence of traditions such as Masonry and Folk-magic on Joseph Smith, are now circulated through Mormon society with an intensity and speed that they previously lacked.
Of course, many Mormons are untroubled by these accounts or have been satisfied with the explanation offered either by Mormon apologists or by the Church itself, which has been releasing a series of essays that address many of these controversies. And some have seen the doubts raised by these issues not as a reason to leave the Church, but to instead have a more sophisticated concept of the sort of truth claims that Mormon scriptures and doctrines make. But for others, this has lead to a prolonged crisis of faith, which for many has been exacerbated by recent controversies within the Church. And while Liahona does not reference all of this material, and was filmed before this most recent round of crisis in the LDS, it captures some of the confusion and strain that many Mormons are undergoing.
This is part of the value of this experimental documentary for anthropology. If we acknowledge that doubting religion is a way of participating in that religion as well, then this film gives us a more full image of contemporary religiosity, which too often has focused as of late on either belief or practice, rather than the speculative and experimental aspects of religion that exceed merely reproducing an image of thought, whether it be through embodied or cognitive mediums. This film also has potential for more mundane pedagogical purposes. While it cannot be taken to stand for Mormonism generally, and needs supplementation to explain many aspects of Mormon practice that are presented but not explicated, I can imagine its use in the classroom. The anthropology of Mormonism has very good published resources, of course, but still much of the best of recent scholarship is only available in dissertation form. Given this, Liahona is a welcome, though not uncomplicated nor sufficient, addition to those interested in supplementing the literature with audiovisual material.