“Childhood was awesome” is not necessarily the statement one would expect from a former member of the Fundamental Latter Day Saints FLDS, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that professes to follow only the teachings of Joseph Smith, the founder of the quasi-Christian denomination, rather than later interpretations. Key among these is “plural marriages” — polygamy, which the LDS banned in 1890. But for many in the rural outposts of Utah where the FLDS have spent the last century, there was harmony and happiness “before the madness.” This statement refers to two instances: the appointment of Warren Jeffs as Prophet and his subsequent arrest and conviction for statutory rape, and the seizure of FLDS property as the church and community came under enforced state jurisdiction.
The tragedies Keep Sweet thus explores are twofold: those betrayed by Jeffs and those betrayed by US property law. The first is the more traditional, comprehendible tragedy. Jeffs’ increasing chokehold on FLDS ideology, banning music and books and pushing his followers to increasing isolation and judgement, drove people away even before his arrests, trials, and conviction. The vocal discomfort director Don Argott’s interviewees express with Jeff’s exhortations to “shun and hate”, which they never viewed as part of their religion, are particularly eye-opening, going against the popular media narrative around fundamentalist Christians in rural America.
One mother’s testimony that her daughter’s health issues and subsequent three years in hospital gave her the requisite space to pack up and leave illustrates the difficulties of stepping to the outside when the community turned too insular. On the other hand, there are community members who remained faithful, struggling to reconcile Jeffs the spiritual leader with Jeffs the abuser. As each departure from the church and community signals a clean break with everyone one grew up with, decisions to leave or to stay are neither sensationalised or trivialised. The audio of a young child asking his older brother why he has to visit while his parents are out, and why he cannot stay, says enough.
This rending of family and faith is handled with delicacy and nuance, meeting the FLDS members and ex-members in a place where they can safely, tactfully, and openly share their truths. Halfway through the documentary, however, the challenge of property ownership and stewardship arises when the church fund Jeffs managed is taken under new US government management. When FLDS community members fear the papers they must sign to retain legal ownership of homes they’ve lived in for generations are disguised attempts to assimilate them, they refuse — and consequences are swift and merciless.
This second trial is far less clear cut spiritually, economically, and socially than Jeffs’ case and cements Keep Sweet as a piece more thoughtful than its sensationalist initial topic suggests. The film does not offer easy answers, though its sympathy lies with the displaced FLDS families who have lost livelihoods and even the means to make their own food. While it does not posit solutions, the black and white treatment of property and ownership against a community that operates more cooperatively, if more insularly, disturbs in its inflexibility. Hearing the evictions and seizure of private and communal property referred to as “America’s secret ethnic cleansing” feels overblown, but the documentary does not seek to censor or censure the perspective of its speakers. Instead it looks for the human, the everyday, and the mundane in a life disappearing.
To “keep sweet” is to remain “clean and pure,” a phrase Jeffs popularised; this practice unfolds in a myriad ways across the documentary’s many subjects, with none of its benign forms given precedence. Keep Sweet is an important work for traditionally liberal viewers, challenging assumptions about a community all-too-often pre-judged for their presumed judgements. The film presents personal and collective struggles with sympathy, even if it cannot balance or quite fit its material into two hours.
Keep Sweet is streaming exclusively on Discovery+ now
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie