Like all religious institutions, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormon Church) produces educational film material.
In 1952, the church hired away the director of animation at Walt Disney Studios, Wetzel “Judge” Whittaker, to run a production studio on the campus at Brigham Young University. The studio produced a lot of films and, when VHS came about, exported many of them to that format. However, now that VHS is an all-but-obsolete format, the videos are being lost to history.
That’s where Hard-to-Find Mormon Videos comes in.
There are 399 videos currently, and while some are straightforward instructional videos about playing the organ or leading a classroom discussion, there are many more that are incredibly strange. Like this one, entitled “I Can’t Do It, Coach,” about a Mormon track star who refuses to drink a glass of wine with his track & field instructor. The fact that this occurs in the track star’s bedroom is never brought up:
There are a great number of more narrative videos, some even feature-length, but a bulk of them run around 10 or 15 minutes. These shorter videos cover topics from cursing and vandalism to doing your chores and “family communication” tactics.
Started in the fall of 2015 by Tom Doggett, a San Francisco software engineer who describes himself as “a former Mormon,” Hard-to-Find Mormon Videos transformed from his original idea of a Mystery Science Theater 3000-style project into a straight-up archive. It has become a nostalgia portal, Doggett says, for Mormons who grew up in the 1980s.
“The response I tend to get with private messages over the past few months has overwhelmingly been from active, believing members who are so happy that they finally have found a treasured video from their past,” Doggett told me over email.
Doggett likes many of the videos for their unintentional silliness. Take “A Cup of Coffee,” an anti-caffeine PSA from 1980. In it, two boys spend an inordinate amount of time talking about when a set of photos from a soccer game will be developed; they are also concerned that their favorite teacher might not be a good person because one of the boys saw her carrying a cup of coffee.
The day is saved when it turns out the teacher was bringing the coffee to a non-Mormon teacher.
In the channel, there are 57 videos classified as “history” and “documentary.” Most of these come in the form of recruitment/progress videos for Mormon communities in various far-flung countries. As for the history videos, some leave out the unseemly details of Joseph Smith’s life. Others flat-out lie about how the people in the Book of Mormon are responsible for ruins and artifacts in Mesoamerica, rather than the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations,
But the true gems of the channel are shorts like “What Think Ye of Christ?,” a music video that tells the brief life story of Jesus of Nazareth (with very low production values) and then cuts to part of a speech (held as a static shot) by a church elder from the late 1980s. What inspired the filmmaker behind the video to put these two items together? The world will probably never know. There are no DVD extras on “What Think Ye of Christ?”
But I really like the ambitious, but still completely goofy ones, like “Eyewitness News at 600 B.C.,” which really just has to be seen.
Presented as a broadcast on the fictitious Middle East News Network, in 586 B.C., it’s like an alternate universe Saturday Night Live sketch that explains what was happening in Jerusalem at the time—a siege! The beats of a news bits are spot-on. The anchor is perfect and the reporters are 100 percent serious while talking about torture and destruction. The straightforwardness of the video is disarming for an outsider so seeped in irony, but it’s still incredibly bizarre. How is Uri the Gileadite able to keep it together?
This is the unintentional silliness that Doggett told me that he and other former Mormons liked about the videos. Who wouldn’t be comforted by the earnestness?
There is a ton of material like this, a (mostly) entertaining glimpse into a religious group that remains mysterious to most outsiders. Even after tracking down several hundred hours of material, Doggett says that he’s not done uploading. He estimates that he possesses about 60-70% of the material the church made prior to 1985 and is searching for more, like training videos for the people who work at official church retail outlets. Some of that footage contains historical re-enactments that “underscore various business principles of customer success and store cleanliness.” Doggett tells me.
I’ll definitely be watching.