"Sister Wife" challenges polygamist stereotypes
January 13, 2009
Sharing creative control over a film is little like being a sister wife, says Jill Orschel, whose documentary is an official Sundance Film Festival selection this year.
The term ‘sister wife,’ also the name of the film, refers to the relationship between women in a polygamist marriage, a practice forbidden by the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, but still practiced by some fundamentalist Mormons.
Orschel, only half jokingly, says she has been married to this film for three years and, in the course of editing and submitted it to Sundance, has experienced the same kinds of possessiveness, jealousy and love that DoriAnn, the subject of the film, so articulately relates. DoriAnn shares a husband with her biological sister and the two have 20 children.
A year into filming the family in Colorado City, Orschel invited a fellow filmmaker, Alexandra Fuller, to come on board to help sort out what was had become an unwieldy project. But the two novice filmmakers were still grappling with the story line when, suddenly, the world’s attention zoomed in on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
On April 3, Texas authorities raided the fundamentalist Mormon community and took 468 children into protective custody. Television cameras panned over busloads of children being ripped away from their families and then focused on the mothers with their signature pompadours and identical pastel-hued dresses.
Orschel recalls Fuller saying, "OK, no more pussyfooting around."
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The two decided to devote the summer to distilling 20 to 30 hours of footage of DoriAnn and her family into a 10-minute short, and to finish it in time to submit to the Sundance Film Festival on Sept. 6.
DoriAnn and her family knew many of the families affected by the raid but have distanced themselves from the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints. Still, the woman Orschel and Fuller had spent years getting to know was nothing like the cartoon caricatures of the victimized plural wives being splashed across televisions around the world.
"We wanted to give her a chance to reveal who she really is," said Orschel.
Ultimately they left all of the previous footage on the cutting-room floor, hired a babysitter for DoriAnn’s children and whisked her away to Park City for an intense four-hour interview about the complexity and emotional challenges of being a sister wife.
"I always knew the film would be a mound of clay and we’d chisel away to find the essence. That is how I work," said Orschel.
The result, due in large measure to DoriAnn’s riveting sincerity, is a powerful monologue revealing both the heartache and deep attachments of a plural marriage.
DoriAnn explains that her sister invited her to marry her husband and after consulting priesthood leaders, "I humbly surrendered, not knowing where this would all go I am not in love, I am doing my duty."
And then with immense composure, DoriAnn looks through the camera into the viewer’s eyes and admits that, as their husband went back and forth between the sisters every other night, she began to feel a "gaping hole," "rage," "fear" and "resentment."
"This will kill me if I don’t get a grip," she says.
The interview is intercut with candlelit glimpses of DoriAnn taking a ritual bath which deepens the intimate context of the subject matter.
Orschel and Fuller explain that far from being wasted effort, the time they spent with DoriAnn and her family over the previous years had cemented their relationship and allowed their subject to reveal her innermost feelings.
Orschel readily admits that allowing Fuller to make edits and other decisions on the film has been both wrenching and rewarding.
But she adds, "I would not be in Sundance this year if it wasn’t for Alex. She kept us on a schedule, following through and doing all the important left-brain things it takes to make a film. Surely, I would still be mulling around in my right brain for a few more years on this project if it weren’t for Alex!"
Film features a home-grown crew
Orshel and Fuller are full-time Parkites and nearly everyone else who worked on the film is also from Park City. The background music during DoriAnn’s bath is hummed by local singer Lisa Needham from a melody written by her husband Rich Wyman. And when Fuller and Orschel wanted to get out from behind the camera, they asked another local cinematographer, Shawn Emery to do the filming.
To help celebrate their acceptance by the hometown festival, Sundance added "Sister Wife" to the free Park City/Summit County Locals Only screening of "Amreeka" at the Santy Auditorium Thursday, Jan. 22, at 8:30 p.m.
During the rest of the festival "Sister Wife " will precede screenings of "The Glass House."