10 years after Jeffs’ conviction, Utah polygamist community wrestles with changes in documentary

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SHORT CREEK, Utah (ABC4) – When television and documentary producer Glenn Meehan first stepped foot in the town, his cameraman, a veteran of the conflicts in the Middle East, uttered an ominous remark on the eerie feeling in the air.

“This is scarier than Iraq,” he told Meehan.

That was 2007, and Meehan, a longtime showrunner had flown into St. George and driven into the Short Creek community in Southern Utah in search of “The Lost Boys.” An article in Time Magazine detailing exiled members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) had enthralled him. Meehan had to find out more.

When he arrived in Hildale, Utah, he was greeted with extreme hostility and suspicion. The local police, who were all members of the FLDS Church, tailed him and his crew as they surveyed the town and looked to find out more about the members who called Warren Jeffs a prophet of God. At the time, Jeffs had been on trial for multiple rape allegations. Rocks pelted Meehan’s vehicle, children and adults cursed at them, and angry eyes peered out from behind pulled-back curtains.

Fast forward to 2021, and Meehan now considers many of those who were attempting to give him a modern-day stoning to be his friends. He located several of the Lost Boys – who were cast out of the polygamist community so that the older leadership, including Jeffs, could take more young women as their wives – and still maintains contact with several of them.

“Now when we go back there is complete welcome,” Meehan explains to ABC4.com. “Nobody throws rocks, people are happy to see us.”

While the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, are currently divided by those who still revere and idolize Jeffs as a prophet, and those who have been working with the state to repurpose the area and break its ties to the imprisoned former most wanted fugitive, who was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years, Meehan sees it as a ping-pong match. His feelings are split, he likes the people on both sides of the issue.

“I have friends now, which I never expected, friends on both sides.”

This internal conflict within the former FLDS stronghold has been captured in a soon-to-be-released documentary, KEEP SWEET, produced by Meehan and directed by Don Argott and set to be streaming exclusively on discovery+ beginning on Wednesday.

While it may seem like it would be easy to portray the remaining members of Jeffs’ followers as imbalanced and irrational, ABC4.com did not find that to be the case in an advance screening of the film. At the conclusion of the project, Meehan and Argott didn’t feel that way either, they explain.

“We arrived there, the place was very different. You come in with all that baggage, at least I did,” Argott says of his preconceived notions of the Short Creek residents. “And it wasn’t until we really started to get to know the people there, we started to spend some time with the people on both sides, that the place takes on a very different kind of energy.”

To him, that’s the objective of the documentary, to take the viewer on a similar journey that he and Meehan experienced to ultimately achieve a better understanding of a group of people that draw visible gossip and stares when they’re out running errands in the Southern Utah area.

“That’s their belief, and who am I to say that that’s wrong,” Meehan questions rhetorically.  “You can look at almost any organization, and you’re going to see so many things that, to me, as a practicing Buddhist, I just quite don’t understand. But it’s not up to me to say ‘No, you’re wrong, you shouldn’t be believing this.’ I’ve gotten to know them as people.”

Argott admits that he felt a sense of frustration towards the lingering followers of Jeffs who still believe he is innocent of any wrongdoing. As many former FLDS members have disavowed him as a prophet and have returned to the Short Creek area to convert it into a more progressive community, those who remained in the faith have given resistance to the changes. The documentarian feels this is preventing them from moving forward in their beliefs.

“Realistically, there’s no chance Warren Jeffs is ever getting out of prison,” Argott says. “And they’re kind of waiting around for that, that seems to me, I think, in its own way, very, very sad and tragic.”

Still, their goal in documenting the area and how it stands 10 years after Jeffs was sentenced to life behind bars wasn’t to take a side but to present both groups in an equal light.

“What I’m proud about in this documentary is that the audience is left at the end, not told how to feel, but they are listening to both sides, and they can come up with their own conclusion,” Meehan states. “But these people are just like any other person that practices religion, or faith, and they have every right to practice that.”

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