Editor’s Note: Sons of Perdition kicks off the 2010-2011 Doc Soup season on Wednesday October 6 at 6:30pm and 9:15pm at the Bloor Cinema. Tickets are still available as of this writing for the 9:15pm screening.
Doc Soup is a monthly documentary screening programme run by the good folks at Hot Docs. It gives audiences in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver their regular doc fix each year from the fall through to the spring, leading up to the Hot Docs festival itself.
Sons of Perdition (Directors: Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten): Polygamy was outlawed in the US and banned by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints more than a century ago, but an offshoot of the Church called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) continues to practice it in a few isolated settlements in the American (and Canadian) West. The centre of FLDS life is the border-straddling community once called Short Creek and which now comprises Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. Still called “The Crick” by its inhabitants, it’s an insular community in which everyone’s lives are governed by the dictates of FLDS Prophet Warren Jeffs. Before his arrest and imprisonment on sexual abuse charges in 2007, Jeffs lived in a huge house with as many as 80 wives and an unknown number of children.
By their very nature, polygamous communities are unsustainable over time as men are forced to compete for wives, and this has led to the phenomenon of “lost boys” or “sons of perdition.” These are usually adolescent boys who have been exiled from their community; some expelled by the Prophet for petty violations (watching movies, talking to girls), others simply leaving on their own accord. Most don’t go far.
Sons of Perdition gives us a glimpse into the lives of three of these lost boys who leave Colorado City around the same time. Sam is 17 and seems determined to make something of his life, despite his lack of formal education. Joe is also 17 and is expelled for watching a movie in the company of his exiled brother. Bruce is just 15 when he decides to leave, after his father falls out of favour and has his wives (including Bruce’s mother) and children taken away from him. All three end up in nearby St. George, Utah, just 30 miles from their families, where they crash with various other exiles at first. Needing a stable address to get into high school, Sam flirts with the idea of having himself adopted, but opts against it when the prospective family treats him like a potential criminal. It’s very clear that away from their families, these boys are really struggling. To make things worse, most have rudimentary educations and are barely literate. They know little about the rest of the United States, never mind the rest of the world. Something as mundane to the rest of us as a Catholic church is a brand new world to them. “Catholics believe in Jesus?” Bruce wonders. “I guess so…” replies Joe. “Sweet.”
Eventually all three are taken in by a wealthy young couple, Jeremy and Sharla, who quickly become surrogate parents. But their motivations are a bit of a mystery and after Jeremy surprises the trio with a drug test and finds the results not to his liking, he throws them out. Although the boys protest their innocence, we have seen them indulging in some enthusiastic drinking, smoking and cussing earlier in the film. Literally damned to hell by their Prophet, they are just as likely to act out as they are to pine for their mothers.
Luckily, the filmmakers followed the boys for more than two years, and by the end of the film, there have been some encouraging developments. But there are definitely going to be huge holes left in the lives of these young men. Without connections to their families and to the community where they were raised, and with a huge cultural deficit that makes it nearly impossible for them to make friends outside of the small community of FLDS exiles, their lives will always be difficult. These lost boys, though now free to choose their own lives, have lost a lot that can never be recovered.
I appreciated the fact that the film focuses on boys. The media has been full of stories about the abuse suffered by girls and women in these communities, and Sons of Perdition never downplays that. Indeed, there are segments where women tell their stories as well. But the untold story has been these boys, who though ostensibly more free within the sect, have very few prospects for a happy and fulfilling life. Their futures are just as much subject to the whim of the Prophet. The tragedy is that for a community that claims to put so much value on family (look at all those children!), they routinely separate children from parents and spouses from each other, subject only to the whim of the Church leadership. As Sam ponders his newly-independent future, he laments. “I don’t think religion should ever come between family — family should be your religion.”