On this edition of Mormon Stories Podcast, we are honored to interview award-winning documentary filmmaker Helen Whitney about her life as a documentary filmmaker, her work on the 2007 PBS documentary “The Mormons,” and her new film about mortality entitled “Into the Night.”

In Part 1, we discover that throughout her career, she has maintained a deep interest in spiritual journeys, which she first explored with her documentary The Monastery, a 90-minute ABC special, about the oldest Trappist community in the Americas. Helen followed this film with a three-hour Frontline documentary for PBS, John Paul II: The Millennial Pope, and in 2007 she produced The Mormons, a four-hour PBS series that explored the richness, complexities and controversies surrounding the Mormon faith. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, she produced Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, a two-hour documentary that examined how religious belief – and unbelief – of Americans was challenged and altered by the spiritual aftershocks of 9/11.

In Part 2, Helen shares intimate details about the making of the highly-impactful documentary “The Mormons.” She also provides her non-Mormon perspective of the faith and many anecdotal interactions with LDS General Authorities including Boyd K. Packer, Jeffrey R. Holland, and Gordon B. Hinckley (among others) that our listeners will find very intriguing.

In Part 3, we learn about her new project, Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death, a two-hour feature documentary featuring fascinating, unexpected voices from various walks of life: old and young, believers and nonbelievers, the dying and the healthy, well known and obscure. However varied their backgrounds, all are unified by their uncommon eloquence and intelligence, and most important by their dramatic experience of death. Into the Night is a two-part documentary, with Part 1 available now for streaming on Hulu and for rent on Youtube.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 1

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Part 2

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Part 3

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11 Comments

  1. Peter November 14, 2018 at 8:54 am - Reply

    Wow. I’ve listened to part 1 and 2 so far and all I can say is wow. What a cool lady; can’t wait to listen to part 3. Sounds like I have some videos to watch!

  2. Amber Empey November 14, 2018 at 1:12 pm - Reply

    I’d love to watch her documentary on the Mormons. I tried pbs.org but it says it’s not available in the US. Is there a way to watch?

    • Elder Van Halen November 15, 2018 at 1:54 am - Reply

      Here are the links to “The Mormons” documentary.

      Part 1: https://www.pbs.org/video/frontline-the-mormons-part-one/
      Part 2: https://www.pbs.org/video/frontline-the-mormons-part-two/

      Thanks John and Helen. Loved the MS interview, and loved watching the documentary. I am so grateful to learn about so many resources out there to learn about church history. I am only discovering this now, even though this film was made in 2007. The church as I know it today is very different than when I served as a missionary over 30 years ago. The gospel message and history was so simple and straightforward. Joseph Smith was a Prophet who had one vision, and that’s what we shared as missionaries. He translated the Book of Mormon from Gold Plates that he was directed to that was a true history of the people living in the Americas. Now in my mind, that narrative has been turned upside down because of great scholars and historians that have pressed forward with publishing the truth. Even at the expense of excommunication from the church. Lack of DNA evidence and lack of archaeological evidence has the church back pedaling on many levels to re-write the narrative of the church. Interesting time to be watching as the church leaders do their song and dance to a new tune every few years with changing doctrine or messages, etc.

      Thanks God for modern revelation to correct us on calling the Mormon Church the Mormon Church, and to tell us that it is time to move to a 2-hour block for Sunday Meetings. :-)

  3. Nancy November 15, 2018 at 11:18 am - Reply

    I have also wondered about the contradictions between the humanity many Mormon church leaders display vs the terrible damage their official teachings do. My personal explanation is that preservation of the institution comes first and people come second. They know if they deviate too much from the established narrative , which at this point is a literal interpretation, most of their members will leave.That is what happened to the Community of Christ church in the 1980s when they distanced themselves from the Book of Mormon. So instead they were willing to let a slow trickle of members leave and make up for the loss with a high birth rate and heavy recruiting of new members.But the rise of the internet has changed that. Youth are less likely to be involved in any organized religion. Members leaving for historical reasons has changed from a trickle to a steady stream. LGBTQ and women’s issues are more in the fore front. How top leaders are responding seems to be doubling down. Their humanity is put aside for the sake of the institution.

  4. True Believer November 15, 2018 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    I found this interview very interesting. I thought it was interesting at time when John would get worked up on a topic and she would gently bring him back to the subtly of religion, especially on the Mormon church. I found it interesting that she referred to the Mormon church as “your faith” and then towards the end of part 2, John said “on behalf of the Mormons, who we aren’t supposed to call ourselves Mormons..” Does John still identify as a ‘Mormon’? I thought by choice (I know his ex-communication was not his choice) he has chosen to disregard the doctrine, teaching and church. Curious as to the end of the interview and how to interpret that.

    • John Dehlin November 15, 2018 at 1:08 pm - Reply

      I consider myself to be a cultural/social/tribal/secular Mormon. <3

  5. True Believer November 15, 2018 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    John, thanks for you comment back. I’m a believing, active member but I enjoy hearing the thoughts and comments. As they come from your experience and background that is in some ways very similar and yet very different from mine. I appreciate hearing your thoughts.

  6. Misty November 18, 2018 at 7:57 am - Reply

    as a hospice nurse in a busy inpatient hospice unit i see death every shift i work.
    i joined the church at 18yrs old and am now 45yrs old. i was an active stay at home mom of 6 kids – the kind that didn’t even know mormon stories existed and had heard of the PBS show on the mormons when it came out but would not watch anything that might unsettle me in my faith or anything that might be “untrue” – so i didn’t watch it or anything besides church approved material over the years. until now – apparently.
    once you believe that mormonism is a lie – there is no comfort/solace to be found in that lie. i want truth but in the case of death i don’t know where to find it. i am focused on uncovering untruths which is different than finding my own truth. where i once had “knowledge” i am left with questions and uncertainty. and maybe that is ok – to live in the gray area of not knowing everything is so different for ex-mormons and when it comes to death – that ability to live without knowing can be a true test of truth seeking.
    i thought that seeing people die so often would be hard – it isn’t for me. it is simple really. the complexity of it seems to only enter in with the family or loved ones of the dying person. the dying patient is generally a simple thing – they are generally just ready to go – pain has a way of helping that process of acceptance along – and dying is painful. so it isn’t death for myself i am trying to come to terms with (i know exactly what i want when i am faced with death, down to what drugs i want and how often) – it is death of loved ones. that is where the work is. that is where it gets complicated for me.
    i am glad i found a community of people that understand what it is like to be mormon, to be traumatized by being mormon, to be elated at finding truth, to be working at finding comfort in all of it.
    thank you for the work you do John Dehlin.

  7. Tracy November 18, 2018 at 11:38 pm - Reply

    I’m a convert of 30 years, and recently left the Mormon church. I enjoyed this podcast immensely. Helen is a true documentary professional and she wanted to tell the story of Mormonism in a fair way. She needs to give participants in her film the benefit of the doubt and I’m glad that she wasn’t too critical of the Mormon leadership of the early 2000’s. I haven’t watched the documentary as I lived until recently in the U.K. I will watch now. I’d say Mormonism is relevant to U.S. history, but has had little impact on world history to any great degree. It is an uniquely American experience and I cannot think of anywhere else in the world that Joseph Smith could have started his religion than in 19th century America. He really was a religious anarchist and a total chancer tbh. Fair play to the man. I’d only have one comment from this interview and her views on her experiences with Mormon men generally. Mormon men can be a super smart bunch, and very beguiling. As a feminist, if she was to walk in the path of a Mormon women, I think her view of her interview experiences would change. If she was a Mormon women documentary maker, she would not have been treated in the same way, and unlikely, she would have been given access. I’d also say that Mormonism has moved on since the documentary – of course – many of her insights in the podcast interview felt a little outdated. Of course, she should have no desire to keep up with Mormonism, although most Mormons, like all other groups, think people ruminate on their importance more than they actually do. I’d love her to update her documentary and speak with a new generation of Mormons. I’d love to hear her take comparing now to back then in the early 2000’s. An utterly wonderful lady.

  8. Janet C May 16, 2019 at 10:40 am - Reply

    I love the section in part 2 around 45:30 when Helen talks about how the she will not do what the church thinks is best for her! Such a powerful moment for me. Thank you, Helen!

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