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Pbs Documentary : Mormons Upset Over 'Missionaries'

May 13, 1987|CLARKE TAYLOR

NEW YORK — Despite having cooperated in its making, officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not pleased with a new documentary about the Mormon Church and its missionary program, which is scheduled to be broadcast on PBS tonight.

Produced and directed by Seattle-based film maker Bobbi Birleffi and shot in Utah and Central America, "The Mormons: Missionaries to the World" focuses on the church's worldwide missionary program, which reportedly adds nearly 250,000 converts annually to a membership base of 6 million.

The film follows several 19-year-old men as they prepare for the mission program, a two-year effort that is expected of all male Mormons as a rite of passage.

Included are on-camera interviews with returned missionaries, some calling the experience an incredibly happy time, others saying it was the most harrowing and stressful time of their lives.

One man who failed to complete the training program talks about feeling trapped and says he escaped by taking an overdose of pills, only to return home to ostracism. In another segment, an emotional young man is seen breaking down before his local congregation as he talks of having to choose between his fiancee and the mission program.

Throughout the documentary, the Mormon Church is described by some members as "a system based on absolute authority." One Utah woman says she fears being excommunicated because of her appearance in the film.

Church spokesman Jerry Cahill said from Salt Lake City that church members and officials have seen the documentary and are "disappointed."

Videocassettes were provided in advance to public television stations, including the Mormon-owned KBYU-TV in Provo, Utah.

"We have no official comment at this time, but if we do, it will be made after (the air date)," Cahill said.

"We are notifying our 2,400 public relations volunteers around the world, to let them know it will be on and that we cooperated fully, but didn't produce, sponsor or approve it."

Cahill said the church also has expressed its concerns to PBS about promotional materials for the documentary, which he said present "a sensationalized picture" of the church.

Despite objections, KBYU-TV was planning to broadcast the program as scheduled, Cahill and station officials said.

The one-hour documentary will be seen locally at 8 p.m. on Channel 50, at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15 and at 10 p.m. on Channel 24. Presented by KCTS-TV of Seattle, it was funded by a $250,000 grant from the San Francisco-based George D. Smith Fund and a $44,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

"The Mormons are very sensitive about their image. They are very image conscious, and this always made it more difficult to make the documentary," Birleffi said.

She described being closely monitored by church officials in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah, locations of the church headquarters and missionary training center, respectively, as well as at a Mormon mission site in Guatemala.

Birleffi said she initially gained the cooperation of church officials "because they didn't perceive me, as a woman, as much of a threat." In addition, she said, the project's primary funder, George D. Smith, is well-known to church officials as "an inactive member of the Mormon community." She emphasized that standard PBS rules for funding prevented Smith from participating in the project.

"I told them all I'd try to be balanced," Birleffi said, "but their idea of balance and mine may be different."

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