Oprah’s Network Goes to the Movies
Tyler Measom/ In Exile Films, LLC
Sons of Perdition

A scene from "Sons of Perdition," about three young men who grew up in a polygamous compound.

Fifteen years ago Oprah Winfrey introduced a book club to her talk-show viewers and thus began providing the publishing industry with its own version of an entitlement program. As a subsidizer of literacy, she brought Tolstoy and Faulkner to those not necessarily in possession of the Penguin Classics while primarily shepherding forgettable middlebrow women’s fiction onto the shelves of those who might otherwise have been satisfied with People magazine. Three of her 10 selections in 1997 were children’s books by Bill Cosby, which should in itself sustain the question of her value as a national educator.

Her resources such as they are, Ms. Winfrey now has a network, OWN, and with it she is bringing her considerable imprimatur to the world of documentary film. Each month, under the rubric of a documentary club, OWN broadcasts a feature-length effort that carries the editorial judgment of Oprah Inc. Broadly speaking, something has come to say Oprah if it chronicles the spirit’s triumph over extreme adversity; if it helps, heals, inspires, ennobles, persuades, teaches, uplifts. The films appear to have been chosen according to more exacting, less hokey criteria. With a debut last month, the series continues this summer with three excellent entries: "The Sons of Perdition," to be shown Thursday, and "Serving Life" and "Life 2.0" later on.

Implicit in the philosophy of Oprah’s Book Club was the idea that all reading is good and good for you. Ms. Winfrey has been both an absolutist and a friend of relativism, a believer in the cultural primacy of the book and yet someone who seems to feel that spending an afternoon in the company of a melodrama like Wally Lamb’s "She’s Come Undone" is just as meaningful as spending it with "Great Expectations." Some of this Oprah-think is upended by her latest venture, as the films make a strong case not only for the power of other but also for the merits of a clean, emotionally unembellished brand of storytelling.

Beyond the cloyingly therapeutic dimensions of Ms. Winfrey’s tastes there has been a longstanding interest in narratives of dislocation, not merely in the metaphoric psychological sense but also along the more transparent lines of characters trapped in inhospitable worlds. It is this idea that has animated the film club’s initial selections.

The first book chosen for her club in September 1996 was Jacquelyn Mitchard’s "Deep End of the Ocean," a novel about a kidnapped boy who winds up with an adoptive family living a few blocks from his biological parents. The documentary series began with "Becoming Chaz," a movie about Chastity Bono’s uncomfortable life as a woman and subsequent sexual reassignment. But the series acquires its voice with "Sons of Perdition," a chilling film by Jennilyn Merten and Tyler Measom, lapsed Mormons who examine young lives ruined by polygamy. The film is an essential addendum to HBO’s "Big Love," which dramatized the abuses of fundamentalist Mormonism; it shows us just how accurate a portrayal the series rendered.

"Sons of Perdition" can be vague and confusing at times, but it conveys the tragedies of religious extremism with none of the hysteria that too often attends these kinds of projects. The film focuses on three teenage boys who leave a large polygamous community in Colorado City on the Utah-Arizona border run by the notorious Warren S. Jeffs. It shows how ill equipped the exiles are to make a transition to the mainstream. Moved to group housing with other young apostates who had succumbed to drugs and alcohol, the boys are uneducated and unmoored. In talking about the Holocaust, one confuses Bill Clinton with Hitler. They have trouble reading. A young woman confesses that she does not know the capital of the United States.

How this might have come to pass is evident in the frightening, whispery-toned recordings of preaching by Mr. Jeffs supplied here. Mr. Jeffs, who faces charges of bigamy and sexual assault in Texas, allows his followers virtually no consumption of information and entertainment. Warning his constituents that modern moviemakers are the "filthiest" people on earth, he condemns Walt Disney and the Care Bears as dangerous propagators of falsehood.

The next film in OWN’s series, "Serving Life," is as quietly evocative of the subculture it explores, in this instance a prison hospice program at a maximum-security Louisiana penitentiary in which inmates care for the dying. The prisoners involved are selected in large part according to their fitness for withstanding the intensity. The camera turns to the most gruesome aspects of the work and demonstrates how the most broken lives can find meaning in quotidian displays of compassion.

"Life 2.0" is not a sequel but rather a look at the experiences of disparate people who have lost themselves to the virtual community Second Life, where participants assume alternate identities and conduct romantic relationships, businesses, parties and so on. The film maintains a lack of philosophical predictability even as it conveys the inherent weirdness of Second Life. Just when you think it is holding up as an example of our perilously disconnected civilization a grown man who stays up all night representing himself as an 11-year old girl, a moving story unfolds around him, one that will make you less inclined to curse the tyranny of technology if you’d be so inclined.

An obvious question surrounding the documentary club is whether it can produce an Oprah effect, the term used to describe the windfall Ms. Winfrey’s book club offered authors. Cable television is already a generous benefactor of the documentary genre, making it easy to consume worthy, journalistic cinema any night of the week. More to the point, viewers won’t have any need to buy documentaries they’ll be seeing on OWN for the cost of their cable subscriptions. All Ms. Winfrey can offer is the keenness of her filter — so far, so good.
Originally published June 1, 2011