Thoughts on Murder Among the Mormons

Here are some thoughts on Netlix’s 2021 true crime docu-series Murder Among the Mormons, which I watched with my son earlier this month.

I’ve watched a lot of true-crime dramas so far this year, and in truth, they start to blend together. It may be, as New York Times critic Margaret Lyons recently posited, that “cheesy reenactments” are to blame. She singled out Murder Among the Mormons as “among the more egregious offenders in their use of murky, dialogue-free re-enactments of such behaviors as sitting down on a couch, shaking hands and holding envelopes….”

Personally, they don’t bother me all too much, but she is on to something when she writes that the “conventions of the genre” (true crime) are fairly readily apparent. That said, I enjoyed Murder Among the Mormons but thought it should have been four shorter episodes rather than three 55-minute ones. In other words, it seemed to me there was half an episode’s worth of material or story that was left on the cutting room floor. There were to me valuable aspects which I’ll mention below that the directors didn’t circle back to, leaving a strange unfinished taste in the mouth.

The series dealt with three bombings in Salt Lake City in 1985, involving people related to the antique documents business, specifically those dealing in old documents related to the Mormon Church. It is eventually revealed that document dealer Mark Hofman is behind the bombings, and not only that but that most if not all the documents he was finding and selling were in fact forgeries he had created. I had never heard of the case and as I try to not read anything about these documentaries before I watch them, I was mainly intrigued by the Mormon angle. I sort of naïvely presumed, given that I’ve already watched a couple of (not great) TV documentaries about Mormon fundamentalism earlier this year, that the murder was not only among the Mormon Church but directly connected with it.

So I was the perfect victim for the misdirection the documentary goes to some lengths to set up in the first episode — that these bombings must be related in some way to the Mormon Church’s active interest in suppressing unearthed documents which tell a different story than what is the official foundation story of the Mormon Church. (Here’s a contemporaneous LA Times story from before the bombings of the controversy these documents were creating.) It was a clickbait-y way to play on the expectations some (myself included) hold regarding the Mormons and to get people to stick around for episodes 2 and 3.

A rough replica of the golden plates on display in the Church History Museum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. (Wikimedia Commons)

(As an aside that will no doubt offend believers of organized religions, the fact is that the “White Salamander” version of the church’s foundation (which is what one of the unearthed documents — later revealed to be a forgery — details) is no more fantastical or “out there” than the official origin story of an angel called Moroni visiting Joseph Smith in his bedroom and telling him where the golden plates (which became the Book of Mormon) were buried. Furthermore, the documentary sort of takes at face value these “historical” documents when in reality we’re talking about fictions, whether they were written in the 1800s or forged a hundred years later. To me, the more interesting story to be told is about how a master forger was able to capitalize on the Mormon’s insatiable need for their origin story — itself created out of whole cloth — to be validated.)

The best thing about the documentary by far was the interview segments with Shannon Flynn, who was somewhat of an acolyte and business partner to Hofman and clearly still maintains feelings of admiration for him, along with a healthy dose of betrayal. Flynn is a character and a half, to put it mildly, and speaks in a strange Truman Capote-like tone — possibly on account of some disease or ailment that isn’t explained. (In the 1985 footage he speaks completely different and “normal”). He also has facial ticks and muscles that move all over the place, and he has a flair for the dramatic pause as well. His presence absolutely makes the documentary and reminds me that often what I remember most about the many documentaries I watch are these one-of-a-kind personalities, and the quality of the interviews, the choices directors and editors make about what interview material to use, where interviews are cut, etc.

February 11, 1987, New York Times article on the “master forger” Mark Hofman.

The documentary left me unsatisfied in part because I kept waiting for it to circle back to the experts who all authenticated the various forgeries. We’re not just talking about people who had a vested interest in these documents being real, like dealers or collectors. None other than the FBI said they could find no evidence a certain document was forged, and plenty of other experts authenticated them as well, including those at the American Antiquarian Society and the Library of Congress. But while episode 2 went into detail about Hofman’s dealings with dealers, featuring, in particular, an interview with a dealer in New York who was helping to arrange the sale of Hofman’s “Oath of the Freeman” (a document from the 1600s related to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, but alas a forgery) for $1.5 million dollars, once the full extent of Hoffman’s duplicity and the murders he committed to keep the charade going are revealed in episode 3, we hear nothing again from any of these people who had been duped. No doubt one wouldn’t want to talk about being so utterly hoodwinked, but it’s hard to know if the show’s creators really tried or felt that this angle was surplus to proceedings and the copious amounts of recorded testimony from Hofman that makes up the bulk of episode 3.

All in all, an interesting but disappointing documentary series.

Snabba Cash on Netflix

I don’t have a lot of very insightful things to say about the recently released Netflix original series from Sweden, Snabba Cash, but it has enough things going for it that I think people should see it, and so I will offer up a few thoughts. 

Number one of these is that its focus is squarely on characters living the immigrant or sons/daughters of immigrants experience, and for the most part ethnically Swedish characters are secondary. The difference between Snabba Cash and the police procedurals and political dramas that normally make it to the west from Scandinavia was palpable, to my mind at least. Of course, in both instances, the immigrant community we’re exposed to is mostly that of criminals — though at least notably in Snabba Cash there is no “suspected terrorist” angle to any of that criminality.

While we can hope that there will be dramas where the immigrant experience is not portrayed primarily through the lens of crime — and I’m not across all aspects of Scandinavian film and TV output to know whether shows like this are available — what’s refreshing in Snabba Cash is that it feels like the characters are in charge of their portrayal, even if control of their destiny is still in the hands of the (mostly unseen) powers that be.

This subjectivity — in the postmodern, feminist sense of the world — is strengthened in large part by one of the most enjoyable aspects of Snabba Cash for me, and that is the way it was filmed. Much of the drama, if not all, is filmed with handheld cameras that rarely ever settle for longer than a few seconds. Occasionally the camera will take the first-person viewpoint, particularly effective in chase (or being chased) sequences. Of course these days handheld shots or the “shaky camera” are nothing new, NYPD Blue introduced them to tv audiences in the 90s and we’ve come to expect them in a whole host of shows and films. 

But Snabba Cash embraces the aesthetic to the point that it’s less an aesthetic choice as it is the only way this story could have been filmed, or more importantly the only way these characters could have been portrayed. They are constantly on the run, literally as well as figuratively, they’re as often in cars or motorbikes as they are in what feel like makeshift homes and hangouts, where playing a jittery first person shooter video game passes for relaxation. The filming style seems a very conscious nod to the cinéma vérité handheld ethos of the French New Wave rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon of what everyone else, from Hollywood hack to prestige TV showrunner, is doing.

The handheld camera is used together with extremely narrow depth of field camerawork so that often characters are isolated in focus even though surrounded closely by others. Seeing as they are seemingly in constant movement and flux, characters who are the focal point of a scene often go in and out of focus or the cameraperson is forced to play catch up. Again, this is part of the vérité aesthetic of appearing to capture unscripted and unrehearsed action, the camera the proverbial fly on the wall. Surely it adds to the hectic, unsettled nature of our characters, but it also helps signify that these are people on the margins, resigned to scraping to hold on to what they have, or hoping to escape but stuck in a drug-addled and dream-deferred haze. Nowadays everyone from your bokeh-obsessed Instagrammer to the NFL or UEFA with their “portrait mode” on-field cameras has rendered narrow depth-of-field cliché, but as with the handheld camerawork, Snabba Cash sticks at it so relentlessly that it feels less intentional and more natural.

The various plot arcs are not anything special it must be said, there’s a predictability to some of the plot outcomes that to my mind is more a lack of imagination on the part of the creators rather than it too being some statement about the trapped by circumstances aspect of these characters’ lives. In particular, the entire start-up entrepreneur who tries to lift herself out of her circumstances but can never quite leave her past behind — asking for million-dollar loans from her drug-dealing brother-in-law was never going to end well — felt very familiar and no amount of formal inventiveness or fresh points of view is going to overcome that. 

Along the same lines, the billionaire investor Tomas is straight out of central casting, a caricature of the eccentric founder type who stands on tables shouting “we’re fucking rich” and helicopters people in for meetings at remote locales where he is ostensibly taking part in a “silent retreat”. Likewise, we have no idea what the main character Leya’s start-up does aside from one quick pitch session full of buzzwords. For the show it was simply enough for us to know that well-dressed people who work out, drink champagne and dwell in Black Mirror-sterile glass-encased offices or homes represent ambition and leaving the past behind. 

So, Snabba Cash is a mixed bag. Nevertheless, despite the formulaic story and predictable arc, I found it refreshing and I’m glad I discovered it. 


Some other thoughts:

  • A show like this represents one of the best things about Netflix, which is the amount of homegrown original programming that ends up being subtitled and shown on many if not all of Netflix’s international properties. Thus I can live in Japan and enjoy a Swedish drama subtitled in English.
  • Snabba Cash began as a series of novels by Jens Lapidus, which in turn spawned a trilogy of Swedish movies a decade ago starring Joel Kinnaman (the US version of The Killing, House of Cards). The Netflix series supposedly takes place 10 years after the story of those films. “snabba cash” incidentally translates to “easy money”, which is the title of a US remake that has been kicking around Warner Bros. for over ten years as a vehicle for Zac Efron.
  • Evin Ahmad, of Swedish and Kurdish origin, plays Leya, the start-up founder and single mother trying to leave her roots behind for a more successful life. I knew she looked familiar – it turns out she was in the Danish drama Rain which I watched last year. In Rain, she struck me as one-note, but here she really shines trying to juggle the disparate milieu Leya occupies. She’s also a published author: Her 2017 book One Day I Will Build a Castle of Money is “a flow of thoughts which sits perfectly on paper. A journey between words and places – between worlds and prejudices.” (Swedish magazine Fokus)
  • The series was shot last year, during the pandemic, in Stockholm, although I don’t remember the setting ever being referenced by characters as being Stockholm.
  • The title sequence features a Swedish rap song performed by the Swedish rappers 1.Cuz (Somalian-born) and Greekazo (born in Sweden but I believe of Greek heritage).

My Country, My Country: A personal recommendation

Poster for "My Country, My Country", film by Laura Poitras (2006)

With utter predictability, the recent Lancet study (.pdf file) proclaiming that America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in nearly 655,000 Iraqi deaths, has now become a political football. Though certainly well-intentioned, this infallibly researched and thoroughly peer-reviewed study and the reaction it has engendered still shows that when it comes to death, torture, killing, suffering, and incomprehensible loss, most sides with something to say on the issue fall back on abstractions, on numbers bereft of anything but soulless data points. Just as war has been rendered by the aggressors as a video game of sorties and smart bombs, so too have the death tallies become the “top score” everyone is trying to best. Spinning the tallies this way and that only serves to highlight how far away we have removed ourselves from the incontrovertible fact that people — people, not statistics — are being killed.

Can not anyone anymore say simply, one death is one too many?

~

Next week PBS in America will be showing the film My Country, My Country as part of their P.O.V. series. It airs Wednesday, October 25, at 9 p.m. (check your local listings). I strongly urge anyone with access to the network to watch it, or to set the TIVO/DVD recorder/VCR to record it.

I’m going to recommend this film to you not because of its politics or because of its merits, but based solely on the person who made it. This is something I’m normally not wont to do, but here I will make an exception. That is because I know Laura Poitras, the person behind this film. She is a friend of mine. There are few people in my life I have more respect for than Laura. There are few people I know who embody the concepts of commitment and integrity with more clarity than Laura.

Laura spent eight months in Iraq (from June 2004 to February 2005), working by herself, to shoot and record the material for this film. To state the obvious, she did this at great personal risk not only to herself but to those Iraqis who agreed to let her into their lives, their homes, their stories. While on one hand this level of personal risk is simply unfathomable to me, on the other hand I’m not at all surprised. It is the Laura I know.

Explaining her reasons for going to Iraq and making this film, Laura says:

I risked my life to make this film because I felt that I had a certain skill set that could be brought to bear on understanding this war in terms of being able to tell the story of the war in images, through people. The news was never going to do it; the news would always be headlines about statistics and bombs going off, and I knew I could be patient and tell a story with the subtlety of things unfolding, which I believe has a greater impact in creating understanding. Hopefully, that’s one of the things the film accomplishes.

Laura Poitras and I were both students in the SFAI film department in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I didn’t know her at first, she having gotten there ahead of me, but she was one of those like myself who seemed to be at every film screening of the San Francisco Cinematheque or the PFA and therefore I took notice. I gathered from observation and from others that she was opinionated, didn’t mince words, took no prisoners. While that ultimately turned out not to be true, for she was always asking, What do you think?, she nevertheless cut such a forthright and assured figure. She intimidated the hell out of me.

We eventually did meet, become friends, and ended up collaborating on several levels, at school and at the Cinematheque. We had many intense discussions, and not a few differences of opinion. But I never stopped being in awe of her. In awe not of her opinions, but by the passion behind them; not of her actions, but by the clearness of purpose that informed them. I can’t even begin to quantify how much I learned from her.

The other day while cleaning out some boxes, I came across a copy of a note I had written to her while were both collaborating on a publication for the Cinematheque. There had been a disagreement about the cover design. I had to laugh at how inflamed we could get in those days about what now all these years later can only be seen as the most trivial of things.

For various reasons owing all to me I fell out of touch with Laura in recent years until earlier this year when another friend of mine passed on word about this film. It was a shot out of the blue. But then again, the trajectory her career has taken to bring her to this film is hardly surprising. That arc was already starting to be written back then, 15-plus years ago, and while the brainstorming and the opinions and the discussions were no doubt trivial, it is clear the passion, commitment, and integrity that defined her back then have not only remained, but grown and matured, giving us an artist who can tell us a story about that which can never be regarded as trivial.

~

I don’t mean to imply that the Lancet study trivializes death. However, while the study should be applauded if it somehow helps America recover from the collective and wilful blind eye it has been turning, it has still unfortunately been played into a meaningless numbers game: overestimates, underestimates, How much is enough?, When does the number become too high?, or shudderingly, The toll will surely continue to rise.

Contrary to received wisdom, we mustn’t lose sight of the smaller picture. Therefore, I have a different tally to propose, infinitely simpler to comprehend, more difficult to abstract, and ultimately much more illuminating. One. As in one human being, one story. One by one, let us get back to something more basic, more concrete, more grounded in humanity than body counts and news tickers.

Laura’s film is one such attempt to stem the tide, to return to one person, one story. I hope you will make an effort to see it.

(There is a wealth of information about the film, how it was made, and why it was made, at PBS’s website for the film. There you will find a trailer for the film, interviews with Laura, a production journal, as well as an mp3 of the film’s haunting theme music (written for the film by world-renowned Iraqi singer and composer Kadhum Al Sahir), and a podcast of a conversation between Laura and George Packer, who wrote the original New Yorker piece that provided the inspiration for the film project.)