Seeing beyond the weeds

Don Argott and Glenn Meehan discuss Keep Sweet

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Keep Sweet director Don Argott with executive producer Glenn Meehan: “Ultimately we all have to figure out how to exist together and this small town is a microcosm of the whole country, in my mind.”
Keep Sweet director Don Argott with executive producer Glenn Meehan: “Ultimately we all have to figure out how to exist together and this small town is a microcosm of the whole country, in my mind.”

Keep Sweet director Don Argott (who is the co-director with Robert B. Weide of the Oscar-qualifying Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, a highlight in the 12th edition of DOC NYC) and executive producer Glenn Meehan discuss with me in great detail the journey they ended up taking together that started for Glenn in 2005 after he read an article with the title The Lost Boys.

Lori Barlow with her family in Keep Sweet
Lori Barlow with her family in Keep Sweet Photo: 44 Blue Productions, courtesy of discovery+

A place meant to be a utopia, perhaps in the sense of the word’s original meaning as “no place,” is nestled in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. Fundamentalist Mormons settled there in an attempt to create a community that followed their strict standards. “Plural marriage” is how polygamy is called by the followers. It was “all I knew” one of the members states. Glenn Meehan became curious about the story behind the young men who were exiled so that the older men could share the young women. At the time Warren Jeffs had taken over the reign from his father.

No more dances or TV, certain colours forbidden in clothes, women had to wear their hair in a certain way, children’s books were censored to not show girls’ elbows. “We had to shun and hate,” one congregant puts it. Families were reshuffled, women were given to other men as though they were objects, children were reassigned - and everyone had “Keep Sweet” written above their doors. Obedience and a kind of mind control was key to their leader.

The filmmakers open their filmic gate wide: they interview the exiled and the ones who chose to stay. Things changed after Warren Jeffs was arrested and charged with sexual assault of a 12-year-old and taking a 15-year-old as his wife. A ventriloquist named Christine speaks about her own ordeals and how she became involved in the community when longtime residents were evicted because the land was charitable trust property. The borderline between friend and foe remains messy. A 4th of July celebration, as it turns out the last before the pandemic, shows the divide as well as the possibility to come together.

Lori Barlow's daughter holding her cat
Lori Barlow's daughter holding her cat Photo: 44 Blue Productions, courtesy of discovery+

From Los Angeles, Glenn Meehan and from Philadelphia, Don Argott joined me for an in-depth conversation on Keep Sweet.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi!

Glenn Meehan: Where are you?

AKT: I’m in New York, where are you?

GM: I’m in Los Angeles.

Don Argott: I’m in Philadelphia.

AKT: So we are all over the place, as usual on zoom. Don, your name came up recently during a conversation I had with DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers in connection to your Vonnegut film. At least in these two cases, you seem to be working with people who have been on a project for a very long time. And you are deus ex machina and get them on camera as well.

DA: Ha, I guess you’re right! I never thought of it that way. Part of the reason is, I really love the process of things. What got me interested in documentary film is how things work and start asking questions. I’ve always been particularly enamoured by the making of films. I think every film has their own separate story to tell aside from the film that gets presented. In the instance of this film and the instance of the Vonnegut film, even going to the DeLorean film [Framing John DeLorean] that we made is about people being intrigued about a subject to want to make a film and the journey that they go on I think is always very interesting. That’s a big part of the appeal when I look at a project, not just the story itself, but what got people there.

Don Argott: “It’s beautiful, it’s nestled up against these incredible mountains but the town has seen a lot of wear.”
Don Argott: “It’s beautiful, it’s nestled up against these incredible mountains but the town has seen a lot of wear.” Photo: 44 Blue Productions, courtesy of discovery+

AKT: What got you, Glenn, to the subject of Keep Sweet was an article about The Lost Boys in 2005. Can you talk a bit about how you see the journey now, thinking back?

GM: Well, everybody has a project in their life that they just can’t let go. I take this film as like a guy that has a Model T in his garage that he keeps tinkering with and his partner says get rid of it, we need the space. And you’re like no, no, no, no, no, not yet! That’s exactly how this film kept going. Roxy Brockovich and myself at 44 Blue [Productions] started on a card table at his office, editing at night. We came close to selling it before but everybody was like, what’s the ending, what’s the ending? So we were putting it back in the garage for a little bit.

All of a sudden, Don Argott comes along and I’m a huge fan of Believer, I watched it several times. I realised this is the right guy and I welcomed somebody from the outside. Because sometimes, Anne-Katrin, you’re so close to something that you can’t see beyond the weeds. We were stuck in telling Warren’s story, telling the lost boys’ story - it was told.

And Don comes along - I remember picking him up at the airport, at LAX, first time I met him, and we drove all the way to Short Creek, which is about six hours, and we talked quite a bit about the project. Suddenly Don had this thought, this is about a divided town, pretty much like this country at that time. Trump was in the White House. And we’re still divided. All of a sudden the film took on a whole new meaning. Yes, we have to tell Warren’s story in order to have people understand what’s going on now.

Glenn Meehan: “The town is changing but it’s still very much holding on to its past with the members that still live there.”
Glenn Meehan: “The town is changing but it’s still very much holding on to its past with the members that still live there.” Photo: 44 Blue Productions, courtesy of discovery+

AKT: What we come out with is how complicated human relationships are. It’s never simply black and white. It’s never simply where evil lies. Yes, there’s a lot of evil and a lot that should never have happened, but it deserves a second look. It’s good to have such a complicated film with the word sweet in the title. As far as the look of the film is concerned, right from the start, the landscape seems pale and a little bit faded. It gives a sense of time travel, almost like the beautiful dresses that the girls wear. This triggers nostalgia, although we know about the horrors that went on. Tell me about the look!

DA: When you don’t know about the place and kind of walk in without this baggage of understanding what happened there prior with the Warren Jeffs story, all these salacious media reports about this dangerous cult that will do anything that Warren says - you walk into this town and your first impression is, it’s complicated. It’s beautiful, it’s nestled up against these incredible mountains but the town has seen a lot of wear.

There’s a lot of abandoned buildings and contradictions constantly from block to block. It’s a very very small area. Sometimes drone footage can be overused, but it does help give this 30,000 foot view of the place from above at the start. It was certainly intentional. You see this place from a distance at first and then you realise there’s a lot of scars and it’s not as beautiful as it looks from above. Through my lens, watching Glenn reshape how he saw things is very much like the transformation that does happen throughout the story.

Glenn Meehan: “I get a lot of texts from the children. I’m happy to say they’re my friends.”
Glenn Meehan: “I get a lot of texts from the children. I’m happy to say they’re my friends.” Photo: 44 Blue Productions, courtesy of discovery+

GM: I was first there in 2007 and it was extremely different. I had some of the lost boys give me a tour. We were followed throughout the whole town, we were screamed at, they were spitting at us and throwing rocks at us. Looking back I was one of those journalists with my camera and peeking over the walls. Looking back I’m sorry I did that, but everybody was doing it and it was the only way to get the story. At that time Warren was still on the run and still very much in charge. For many, by the way, he’s still in charge.

AKT: That comes across. There’s a moment in the film which is nicely edited, when we see a blackboard with Hitler written underneath “I’m your prophet”, and Warren’s photograph being carried out of a house to be kept.

GM: When you go back to the town now, Don and I would stay at a hotel that was built for Warren Jeffs and his family. There’s a bar there now that just serves beer and wine and we’d go there every night because the food was rather good. The town is changing but it’s still very much holding on to its past with the members that still live there. It’s about change and how they don’t want it.

AKT: The Fourth of July 2019 footage shows the juxtapositions well. You put us viewers into the position of reflecting, well which side are you on? You said you went back recently, how did COVID factor in?

Norma Richter with one of her daughters
Norma Richter with one of her daughters Photo: 44 Blue Productions, courtesy of discovery+

DA: We finished before COVID had hit. The Fourth of July was one of the last shoots that we did

AKT: So you haven’t been back since?

DA: I haven’t been back since. Glenn is more in touch with them.

GM: I’m still in touch with all of them, Christine and the families. Believe it or not, they’re all on social media. I get a lot of texts from the children. I’m happy to say they’re my friends. One of the things, Anne-Katrin, that you said earlier that makes me happy because I think Don did a hell of a job doing this - television and documentaries so often tell the audience exactly how to feel.

Don allowed both sides to tell their story, allowing the audience at the end of the film to decide which Fourth of July celebration do you want to be at? I happened to go to both. For the fireworks at night, Don and I were with the FLDS families over at the cottage, which was one of the saddest things I experienced. All the kids were across the street playing at the park and riding their bikes up and down the street, and here were these FLDS kids, just kind of sitting in the driveway, waiting for their hamburger and couldn’t participate.

DA: On the flip side, you have that parade going down with the girls on top of the thing and the loud music. I don’t know, I could see why this is annoying and isn’t the way forward either.

Don Argott: “There’s a lot of abandoned buildings and contradictions constantly from block to block.”
Don Argott: “There’s a lot of abandoned buildings and contradictions constantly from block to block.” Photo: 44 Blue Productions, courtesy of discovery+

AKT: Agreed.

DA: Trying to find that push-pull of what you align with, maybe the conservative side of things versus the liberal side of things, it’s all inherent in this town, front and centre.

AKT: There’s a lovely moment near the end with, I believe one of Lori Barlow’s daughters, who hugs a kitten and then gets on a bike. And she pushes her long blue dress between her legs to get on the bike. It’s a beautiful moment of grace. I think it is Terrill [Musser] who made me connect to larger politics in past and present when he speaks about having had to swear allegiance to Warren Jeffs and the obedience required. He refused. That goes back to the Brothers Grimm, who were part of the Göttinger Seven and refused to swear allegiance to a new king and paid a high price for it. And it also speaks of a larger political present.

DA: For me one of the things that cemented how we approached the film was a few years back, obviously during the Trump years, it was kind of palpable how much the country was represented in this little story in this small town. You can easily take religion out and put politics in, it’s a lot of similar things. People who are loyal to a guy, whom other people absolutely despise and feel 100% at odds with.

Ultimately we all have to figure out how to exist together and this small town is a microcosm of the whole country, in my mind. And what we’re all going to have to continue to go through as we march on and the political landscape gets more and more polarizing and frankly, super unhealthy and just ugly. I’m as guilty as the next guy of painting Trump supporters with a broad brush, not giving them any kind of inch or benefit of the doubt of what their point of view is, only because I’ve already made up my mind about them.

PRAY AND OBEY on a fireplace chimney outside of a house
PRAY AND OBEY on a fireplace chimney outside of a house Photo: 44 Blue Productions, courtesy of discovery+

The film, in approaching the women that were kind enough to trust us to tell their stories, you try to realise that they’re just people. Obviously we don’t see eye-to-eye and certainly don’t share of the same beliefs, but I can say that they’re good people, that they are trying to be good mothers, good parents to their kids. It’s a good gut check constantly. Once you get to know someone, it gets harder to hate the person for their beliefs. That’s what we strive to show. Other films on that subject have spent a lot of time on the Warren Jeffs of it all and the followers and supporters are very much painted with broad strokes and it’s only the people that got out you get to have real sympathy or empathy for, not the people who are currently in. We wanted to shake that up.

AKT: It’s much stronger to simply show the gravestone that states “Died in Exile” and let that speak for itself. Was it a big decision to have the audiotapes of Warren Jeff’s voice included?

DA: I think it’s important to understand where this all started from. What was surprising to us coming in as outsiders is it’s a community rich with history most people don’t know. I think the 1953 Raids are very telling about how this group of people felt victimised, felt singled out by the government for a belief system that didn’t align with theirs and was purposely going in there to destroy it. Understanding that is a foundational element to how this group of people thinks. It also allows for someone like Warren to come in and further exploit that.

So many people we talked to told us their childhood was beautiful and idyllic. Only to have that come into question when Warren comes in and institutes these stricter policies. I think Terrill says it best, it’s like “Warren was there for six years, he doesn’t define who we are.” In a sense that’s exactly how the United States was viewed from the outside when Trump was president. It’s like our leaders don’t get to define who we are, we define who we are, we have to remember that.

Don Argott and Robert B. Weide’s Oscar-qualifying Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time
Don Argott and Robert B. Weide’s Oscar-qualifying Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time

AKT: Last question to you Glenn. Were you surprised seeing your own journey this way in the film? You’ve grown, I suppose.

GM: Well, I’ve put weight on. I have to tell you, Anne-Katrin, I’ve watched the film really for the first time last night. Deliberately. There’s been a lot of cuts but I was kind of like, let me watch it right up until press day. It was amazing to see what Don captured of my own journey. I did not want to be in the film. Don said you have to be in this film, you’re part of the journey. When I first went there, I was so unwelcomed.

As a producer, I think it’s opened my heart and my mind to other ways of doing what we do. I think we’ve gotten to a place in this country with Fox, with MSNBC and CNN, we’re telling the viewers this is how you need to think. What Don has done here and what makes me so happy in my own journey is that we hope that the audience comes to that conclusion on their own.

Once again, I love what you said about the Fourth of July experience, because you had to decide where did you want to sit that night. Or you sit in both places, like we did. I’m sad I was one of those journalists like Lisa Ling and others that were hanging over fences, getting these kids. I never thought I’d see the day being actually at their house having dinner. It’s been a journey and it has changed my life.

AKT: Thank you for a powerful film.

DA: Thank you! Talk to you soon!

GM: Thank you, Anne-Katrin, appreciate it!

Keep Sweet is streaming on discovery+.

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