By Lara Levitan
Chicago filmmaker Xan Aranda approaches her films as an ambassador for their subjects. In her first feature, 2011’s award-winning “Andrew Bird: Fever Year,” she presents a frenetic year in the touring life of the lauded musician; and in her follow-up documentary, “Mormon Movie,” set for completion in 2014, Aranda reveals a little-known filmmaking community within the Mormon church.
“I’m an insider-outsider for these two seemingly cloistered entities,” says the thirty-seven-year-old former Mormon, who says that while the church is “notoriously private, [it is] ever working to convert new believers.”
With a host of accolades for “Fever Year” and a Kickstarter fundraising effort that far exceeded its goal, Aranda is converting new believers of her own. Not that she hasn’t already been a force in the Chicago film community: a sought-after consultant and speaker, she founded the Chicago Short Film Brigade in 2004, and in 2007 began a fruitful relationship with local documentary powerhouse Kartemquin Films, which is executive-producing “Mormon Movie.”
In 2007, Aranda located and bought a VHS tape of an educational film her mother had starred in while a student in the 1960s at Brigham Young University. Aranda thought the tape, a twenty-minute cautionary tale about marriage called “Summer of Decision,” would make a great Christmas gift for her six siblings.
“[We’ve] been ribbing my mother about ‘Summer’ for decades,” said Aranda, who was raised in a Mormon community in Elgin. “We had a good laugh, but that VHS tape cracked open a whole world I didn’t realize existed.”
That world was the Mormon film community, spearheaded by the Motion Picture Studio (MPS), formed in the 1950s at BYU, where Aranda’s parents had met. Although Aranda had known about ‘Summer of Decision” since childhood, she didn’t understand the profound history and presence of the MPS, which separated from BYU to become a function of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1991. (The MPS still produces films by, for and about the Mormon community.)
Inspired by what she saw as a “long-lost world” closely connected to her own family, Aranda first set out to document what cinema scholar Randy Astle calls the “five waves of Mormon cinema.” But after discovering “And Should We Die,” a second MPS film starring her mother, a more personal approach made sense. “Once I put together the two films, I started to notice their thematic similarities to how our lives have unfolded over time–from our pioneer ancestors to my father’s Mormon life in Mexico, the threads are undeniable,” Aranda said, “and from those threads the viewer is led deeply into our lives.”
“Mormon Movie,” which has already sent Aranda and her crew to Utah, California and soon to Mormon colonies in rural Mexico, has become, at times, uncomfortably personal. “I joke that everyone should make a movie with their parents, about their former religion. Easy!” Aranda’s not only digging into the potentially swampy terrain of family history, she’s confronting her own difficult separation from the church at age twenty.
Broaching such heady topics, the film has elicited life-changing events and discoveries not only for its creator but also for its audience. Last autumn Aranda released a ten-minute demo and received a slew of heartfelt responses. “Catholics, Mennonites, Mormons, Maoris, they wrote to me and said: I thought I was resolved, but your film reminded me of how complicated it is to admit to yourself that no matter what, it’s a part of you. A woman wrote to me and said that she left her Evangelical community in early college, and for the past ten years it has been an unspoken rift between her and her father. She and her father watched my demo together, then talked all night. That is everything to me.”
And yet, Aranda is careful to say that the film has a sense of humor. “It started out super-heavy and scary,” she said, “but it’s getting lighter and lighter.”
See a preview of “Mormon Movie” at the second annual Kartemquin Films Spring Showcase on May 19 at Siskel.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.