Crudely made but compelling docu “Banking on Heaven” scrutinizes Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, two virtually sealed-off fundamentalist Mormon communities,ruled by self-appointed “prophet” Warren Jeffs, in which polygamy, incest, welfare fraud, child labor and other ills apparently run rampant. More agitprop than balanced reportage, this somewhat amateurish feature nonetheless has more than enough shocking allegations to grab the attention. It opened theatrically at S.F.’s Roxie Cinema on June 16.
Having inherited a fiefdom from his father, Jeffs is said to hold Jim Jones-like sway (and authorities fear similar mass-suicide potential) over at least 10,000 residents in the two burgs. A sort of demented Puritanical justice and misogyny reigns: Women are discouraged from “too much” education, wear 19th-century-style neck-to-foot dresses, and are raised to expect subservience as their faith-decreed lot. Outsiders are shunned as agents of Satan.
Though often delivering outrageous numbers of offspring (one woman interviewed had 13), the community’s femmes are denied solo maternal identity toward their own children, instead sharing that role with other “sister-wives” in polygamous domestic set-ups under one privileged husband (some men sire more than 50 kids). Such explosive — and increasingly inbred — population growth is a financial boon for Jeffs and his cronies. Since the polygamous marriages aren’t legal, “wives” qualify for welfare and food stamps as single mothers.
Charismatic Jeffs also owns all property and businesses in the community. Frequent bankruptcy declarations allow him to “bleed the beast,” as the sect’s exploitation of governmental funding is dubbed inhouse. It’s suspected Jeffs’ has some $400 million socked away, while many followers — notably women and children — hover near starvation, giving away almost all their earnings to the “prophet.”
Since the law of averages means there are too many males born for all to enjoy the one-man/many-wives perk, males from less-favored families are expelled from the community for such infractions as failing to keep arm-sleeves rolled down. A Salt Lake City rally calling attention to these “lost boys” provides a poignant if underexplored sequence here.
These FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints) are not officially a part of the mainstream LDS, which banned polygamy at the federal government’s insistence in 1890. But the modern central Mormon church’s disapproval toward the Jeffs compounds seems desultory — considerable fiscal donations may be involved — while state politicians throw up their hands, claiming lack of evidence.
Nonetheless, plenty of on-camera testimony from escaped and cast-out former members here etches an ongoing human-rights nightmare. Astute point is made that while President Bush bemoans the reactionary straitjacketing of women in certain Muslim nations, we’re hypocritically ignoring the debacle in our own backyard.
Pretentiously poetical narration by producer Laurie Allen (herself escaped from a similar sect) strikes a vain, indulgent note. Dependence on the homeless, histrionic and formerly institutionalized Ruth Cooke as principal interviewee also feels like a mistake, as she’s too damaged to seem a reliable witness.
Helmer Dot Reidelbach’s presentation and assembly are basic at best. Out of what feels like sheer sloppiness, she leaves too many basic questions dangling, such as how Jeffs continues to play a dominating role in his communities despite being on the FBI “Most Wanted” list.
Hidden-camera footage of town life is necessarily rough, but tech aspects in general are poor. A last-minute addition to the pic in its theatrical debut at San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema were new interview sequences with Jeffs’ estranged sister Elaine, though they contribute limited further insight.