The Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 18,2003
BY BRANDON GRIGGS, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
Polygamy drove Lareena Smith into depression. Filmmaking brought her back.
The Salt Lake City woman, who spent almost nine years in three plural marriages, has documented her painful past in a new film, “Polygamy and Me.” The 14-minute short was rejected by the Sundance Film Festival, which runs through Jan. 26. But Smith, undaunted, is screening her documentary around town to anyone who wants to see it.
“It’s very personal,” says Smith, 40, about the confessional film, which she directed and produced. “I’m getting used to it now. But the first couple of times I showed it I wanted to run out of the room.”
Documentaries about polygamy are not uncommon, but most have been made by outsiders. A film such as Smith’s, told from the perspective of a polygamous wife, is different. Filmmaker Brian Patrick, a longtime film professor at the University of Utah, is not aware of another film like it.
“It’s unique,” says Patrick, who advised Smith on the film. “It’s a very intimate experience with polygamy that will make people think about how they’d react under those circumstances.”
Raised in “>The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith attended Brigham Young University and served a mission in Taiwan before her increasingly radical religious views led her toward plural marriage.
Convinced the world would end soon, Smith believed becoming a polygamous wife would ensure her afterlife in the Celestial Kingdom, which Mormons consider the highest level of heaven.
In 1990 she met Bruce Kirschman, a like-minded Utahn who already had a wife and nine children. Several weeks later, they wed in a secret desert ceremony. But jealousies between the wives strained the marriage, and the couple split after eight months.
Three years later, after his first wife left him, Kirschman made headlines when he abducted their nine children and took them to a polygamous colony in Mexico. Soon afterward, he invited Smith to join him there. The couple reunited for five months, but things didn’t work out and Smith returned to Utah. A week later, the FBI arrested KirschÂman in El Paso, Texas, and returned the children to their mother.
The marriage’s failure devastated Smith. Still searching for salvation at 33, she joined a fundamentalist polygamist sect in Manti and quickly found a new husband. The first six months were harmonious. Then her husband took a second wife, then 17, and stopped paying as much attention to her. Smith grew jealous and left him.
A third marriage, to a stern Manti man who already had one wife, fared little better. Smith had a miscarriage. The LDS Church excommunicated her for her polygamous lifestyle. Weary and disillusioned, Smith quit the marriage and returned to Salt Lake City in May 1999. Her three marriages had produced little divine bliss — and no children.
“I thought polygamy would give me more freedom . . . but often the idea was better than the reality,” she says in the film. “The deeper meaning I’d been searching for eluded me.”
Smith, who no longer considers herself religious, graduated from the U. last May with a degree in film studies. Her senior film project became “Polygamy and Me,” which she shot in six days on a $4,000 budget. Instead of interviewing her former husbands or sister-wives for the film, she recruited student-actors to play the key roles, including her own. Using them, she shot re-enactments of scenes from her marriages. One shows Smith returning from work with a fistful of cash, which her husband hands to the other wife.
Despite its controversial subject, the film’s tone is breezy. Her film, essentially a gentle story of self-empowerment, ends with shots of the real Smith mugging for the camera, as if to show she has overcome her previous life.
“I was quite naive and very idealistic,” says Smith of her polygamy years. “I was trying to do whatever anybody said God wanted me to do. But I’ve learned that I feel better when I do what feels right in my own heart. I just wish I could have learned this in less time and with a little less pain.”
Smith has shown her film in public a handful of times, most prominently last fall at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival. Reaction, she says, has mostly been positive. Smith says she made the film to combat pioneer-bonnet stereotypes about polygamists and to help reconcile with her past. Although polygamy left her unfulfilled, she does not condemn the practice — either on-screen or in person.
“The Mormon fundamentalist groups’ beliefs are deeply flawed,” she says. “But . . . I don’t think polygamy is inherently wrong.”
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