Keep sweet is a familiar mantra among the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints (FLDS, a sect that broke off from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and still continues to practice polygamy) in Short Creek. The community straddles the Utah-Arizona border, encompassing Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. At first, “keep sweet” appears innocuous—a simple reminder to be kind to everyone. The credo, however, was also used as a tool for keeping members compliant under the will and whim of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs. Now, KEEP SWEET is the title of a new documentary about the FLDS now streaming on Discovery+.
“As we met these FLDS families, we started getting a lot of incredible art pieces from these kids,” says the film’s executive producer Glenn Meehan. “And almost every piece of art said ‘keep sweet. Don and Glenn, keep sweet.’ That phrase kept coming up. We saw it everywhere.”
“‘Keep sweet’ is baked into the fabric of the town, in a way. It’s about behavior. It’s about being a good person. It still has resonance there, but now, as the title of the film, like the town itself, it can now mean something other than what it used to,” says director Don Argott about the choice of the film’s title. He’s best known for directing the documentary Believer, which followed Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds as he learned about the LDS Church’s treatment of LGBTQ+ members.
KEEP SWEET takes a different approach with a wider scope than previous documentaries about the FLDS. It presents community conflicts and religious and political divisions in a fashion that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. That will certainly make for interesting and spirited conversations around the table this Thanksgiving.
On its face, KEEP SWEET is a primer to the FLDS community—catching up the viewer on the 1953 raid by Arizona officials that still shapes the members’ views toward outsiders, the reign of Warren Jeffs, how he divided families and exiled anyone who could possibly challenge his influence and, primarily, how the community has changed since Jeffs’ arrest, child rape conviction and prison sentence.
However, KEEP SWEET strives to be more than that, as that sort of documentary has been done many times. (Just for starters, if you’re looking for deep analysis and painstaking research into the FLDS, polygamy, and the rise of Warren Jeffs or thoughtful explorations into how he further isolated and radicalized a community and destroyed lives, there’s the Unfinished Short Creek podcast, the book Prophet’s Prey by Sam Brower and subsequent documentary, the book Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, the documentary Sons Of Perdition, and so many more.)
“We sat with the documentary for a while, trying to figure out what we were going to do with it,” says Meehan. “Then Don comes along. He sees this new angle to this documentary. We already had the side that was kicked out. But Don, as director, wanted to show both sides without giving our opinions.”
“People have told the Warren Jeffs story before,” says Argott, “But there is something that’s happening in this town that is not being talked about. There’s a pressure cooker there, as all these different people are existing side-by-side. And it’s a story that hadn’t really been told before.”
Rather than retread the same ground, KEEP SWEET hopes to compare the current situation in Short Creek to the American political and cultural climate at large. Specifically, the documentary portrays the divisiveness that emerges when facts are dismissed in favor of beliefs/bias and people stubbornly adhere to their own “truths.”
Before Jeffs went to jail, a documentary crew may have been run out of Short Creek by the so-called “god squad” (Jeffs’ pick-up-driving private security forces.) Now, many of the walls have come down (literal walls Jeffs had constructed around the community). “I never thought we’d be allowed to say ‘hello’ to them [FLDS members], let alone have dinner in their houses and their families,” says Meehan, who first visited Short Creek about a decade ago. “I’ve really grown to like these people so much. And really that’s what the documentary is all about. Everybody has their own truth. Everyone has their own story. And here it is. We’ll give you all of the cards and you decide where your heart is.”
A point of contention that remains in Short Creek, the United Effort Plan (UEP), a land trust, which includes hundreds of homes formerly controlled by the FLDS, is now under the purview of a nonreligious board. Under the board, some former FLDS members—who were exiled, left or escaped Jeffs’ church—have returned to their homes. Some homes have been sold to “outsiders.” And some FLDS members, still faithful to Jeffs, have been evicted for refusing to cooperate with the board’s criteria to keep their homes as they do not recognize the board’s authority.
Those faithful FLDS that still live in Short Creek claim they’ve been persecuted against by the former FLDS who now hold positions of power within the town—such as the UEP board members and Hildale Mayor Donia Jessop. They seem to fail to grasp the irony of being ousted from a community by refusing to cooperate with the people who were once exiled themselves. And therein lies the rub. Former FLDS and new residents are trying to bring democracy, capitalism and modernism to Short Creek and rebuild the lives they had before Jeffs stripped them of everything. In doing so, the FLDS feel they have been stripped of everything. Because, despite all of the evidence proving Jeffs’ crimes, they believe Jeffs to be a prophet, maligned by outsiders and authorities unsanctioned by god, comparing Jeffs to the Mormon prophet and church founder Joseph Smith. (Smith was arrested and imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois after ordering the destruction of a printing press when the newspaper revealed Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. Both of which he was guilty of, so, in that way, he was like Jeffs.)
Unlike Smith, Jeffs is still alive in prison, but we see Jeffs’ ghost continue to haunt the town with his influence, dividing Short Creek into faithful and “other.” And never the twain shall meet. In that way, it seems as insurmountable as the political, religious and cultural divides we all face within our own communities and families.
“When we were making this film, it was the height of the Trump administration,” says Argott. “And seeing how the country was being ripped apart, and frankly, still is, I realized [the town] is America five years from now. This is where we are headed. We are headed to this place where everyone has their own truths. Everyone has their own views of the world. But, guess what? I’m going to have to live next to this person and I’m going to have to figure it out.”
Meehan recounted an experience he had while driving with one of the faithful FLDS, a woman named Norma. They passed a man on the street and Norma told Meehan that man was her brother. “I asked ‘Why didn’t you wave to him?’ And she says, ‘Oh, he left the church. We don’t speak.’ And here they are living in this small town, everyone knows each other, they pass siblings every day and they don’t talk.”
In that vein, Argott compares Jeffs to someone other than Joseph Smith. “No matter what side you’re on, whether you support Trump or don’t support Trump, people have lost family members over it. And that’s something I would say is a new phenomenon living in this country. We’ve always been able to have different ideologies, but there’s something about this guy who came in, much like Warren, and really polarized everybody.”
The documentary lets both sides of the divide share “their truths” with little commentary from the documentarians. So, allow me to provide some here. Both camps in Short Creek subscribe to non-reality at times. We see the FLDS refuse to acknowledge Jeffs’ crimes. Meanwhile, some former FLDS members cling to nostalgia, painting an idyllic picture of their lives in Short Creek before Warren Jeffs. Jeffs’ predecessor, his father Rulon (a.k.a. Uncle Rulon) might not have committed horrors on the same level as his son nor restricted the freedoms of the members to the same degree, but Under the Banner of Heaven uncovered that Uncle Rulon had underage wives all the same. Some were as young as 14 and forced to marry Rulon in his 70s and 80s. Life was hardly idyllic for those girls, before or after Warren Jeffs.
Does the image in the documentary of a divided community trying to heal itself bode well or provide hope for the future of a divided America? The filmmakers seem to think so.
Argott describes a scene in the film between one of the faithful FLDS members and a relative that had left the church. An outsider who had moved into town, Christine, in her attempt to help reunite families, had arranged for them to get together. “Lamont Barlow ends up giving Esther a hug,” says Argott. “And I feel like that’s the kind of healing that can happen, and hopefully continues to happen.” However, with his work on Believer, and now with KEEP SWEET, Argott has observed a trend when it comes to extending olive branches over religious divides. “You have to be the one to meet the religious people where they are. That’s a frustrating thing to have to deal with in general. People are going to be stubborn.”
“I have a lot of hope for the children, in some ways,” says Meehan. “They didn’t ask to be a part of this religion. They were born into it. Now, these kids have access to the internet. They have an awareness that wasn’t there before. Things are going to change. Maybe they’ll see the world a little differently than their parents.”
Here’s the official synopsis for KEEP SWEET:
Warren Jeffs was the Prophet of the FLDS, an offshoot of Mormonism. Jeffs’ demanded absolute loyalty, and instituted complete adherence to the religion, requiring strict dress codes, banishing community celebrations and casting out followers who didn’t fall in line. His controversial reign ended with a conviction for sexual assault with underage girls, landing him in jail for life. Jeffs’ downfall sent shock waves throughout the community, with some continuing to pledge their loyalty to him, while others turned their backs on Jeff’s and the FLDS religion altogether. 10 years after his arrest, those left behind attempt to rebuild their community. KEEP SWEET is an allegory for the unsettling reality we are living through in America. Can we learn how to live with one another despite our different ideologies, or are we destined to live apart?
KEEP SWEET is directed by Don Argott (Believer, The Art of the Steal) and executive produced by Rasha Drachkovitch, Stephanie Noonan Drachkovitch, Glenn Meehan and David Hale for 44 Blue Productions and Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce for 9.14 Pictures. Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. Watch the trailer for the documentary here. Now streaming on Discovery+.