Documentary follows teens exiled from polygamous sect
Sons of Perdition

Sam Zitting and Joe Broadbent left Colorado City as teenagers after falling out of favor with FLDS leadership. Once on the outside, Joe tries to help his mother and younger sister escape.

There's something about coming-of-age films, with their familiar sense of newfound independence balanced with a yearning for family connection, a desire to grow up but not too much, that American audiences love.

In many ways, this archetype is at the center of Sons of Perdition, an independent film showing in Houston for the first time next week.

But the teenage boys featured in this documentary have a darker, more painful background as exiles from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

They're called the "lost boys." Some fled on their own. But others had their coming-of-age moment thrust upon them by a prophet who forced them to leave their families and religious community to live completely separate from the polygamist compound where they grew up.

That prophet was Warren Jeffs, the now-imprisoned leader of the 10,000-member FLDS sect, which split from mainstream Mormonism more than 120 years ago to continue the disavowed practice of plural marriage.

Over his nearly decade-long reign as head of the FLDS church, he rid the Colorado City, Ariz. , settlement of hundreds of young men while older leaders continued to take young women as wives. Jeffs is currently in a Texas prison, awaiting trial for sexual assault and bigamy.

"It's related to Jeffs. Sociologists would say it's an inevitable demographic shift that has to occur for that marriage pattern to continue," said Martha Bradley, an expert in Mormon history and dean at the University of Utah. "It's really an extreme test of loyalty for Jeffs to order one of their followers to get rid of their teenage son."

The boys who leave are, in their families' minds and their own, "sons of perdition," destined for damnation for rejecting God's teachings.

"What do you do when you're 16, and you're told that you're evil and you're going to hell?" asked Tyler Measom, who directed and produced the film with Jennilyn Merten. They followed exiled teenagers through their initial culture shock and desperate homesickness for their families.

The FLDS Church has not issued a response to the film, said Rod Parker, their Utah-based attorney.

"It's made me really angry to watch their families fall apart over religion," Merten said. "Sam (one of the boys in the film) said, 'I don't think religion should ever come between family. Family should be your religion.' "

The film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and will be screened Wednesday at Houston's 14 Pews. It will also air on the Oprah Winfrey Network this summer.

As former Mormons who made the difficult decision to leave the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Measom and Merten knew what it felt like to take that disappointing turn from such a tight religious group.

"It was a difficult, difficult process," said Measom. "You're disappointing family and community and everything you've come to believe."

The boys they met Joe Broadbent, Bruce Barlow and Sam Zitting - had it much harder and may always struggle with living apart from their relatives.

"Getting involved helped expel some of that sympathy," Merten said. Their documentary has raised $100,000 to support ex-FLDS youth making the transition to living on their own.

She still follows Jeffs' trial and the state of the community, which appears to be in turmoil.

Though Jeffs hasn't formally resigned his presidency, church elder William E. Jessop became president of the corporation that is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints after filing papers with the Utah Department of Commerce on Monday, in what Jessop calls "an attempt to restore the church."

"It's really going to be interesting now to see, No. 1, Warren Jeffs' reaction, and No. 2, what the people's reaction will be," said Anne Wilde, co-founder of the polygamy advocacy group Principle Voices. Jeffs already ceded authority of the church once to Jessop in 2007, although Jessop didn't act on the directive at the time.

President of the church since 2002, Jeffs has spent most of the past four years behind bars. He was arrested in 2006 and convicted the next year on Utah charges of rape as an accomplice. The conviction was later overturned, and Jeffs was extradited to Texas. Trial is set for July in San Angelo.

Accusations against Jeffs date back to 2004, when his nephew Brent filed a sexual abuse suit against him. In Brent's book, Lost Boy, he writes that the leader abused him and his two brothers.

Even a guilty ruling for Jeffs may not shake the faith of his followers, who believe that persecution from outsiders is a sign that they are following the will of God.

"The idea of being a persecuted people means this plays into the thinking that, 'We're right. We're a special people,' " said Merten, who researched Jeffs for the film.

The allegations of sexual assault against children - raised by evidence found in the raid of their ranch in 2008 - may have discouraged members from taking younger wives.

"That's one very positive thing to come out of this; they've already started to be more cautious (about marriage ages)," said Bradley, the historian.

Measom and Merten said they're hopeful the FLDS community will become more open, allowing children to attend public schools and letting the lost boys reunite with their families.

Before coming to Houston, Sons of Perdition screened in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas.

"We're hoping for San Angelo next," Merten half-joked.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Originally published March 31, 2011