The AML Film Award

4 December 2001 - The American Latino Media Arts Awards (ALMA) is "the premiere Hispanic primetime network awards special, celebrating the positive portrayal of Latinos in American film and television."

The annual Image Awards sponsored by the NAACP is one just many forums that recognize African-American filmmakers and actors. Last year Denzel Washington received the Image Award for Best Film Actor for "Remember The Titans," and the Best Film Actress award went to Sanaa Lathan for "Love & Basketball." Other Image awards go to supporting actors, best picture, as well as over 20 television awards, plus music and literature awards.

Awards are given at dozens of Jewish film festivals, GLBT film festivals, etc.

There is no Latter-day Saint equivalent of the Academy Awards, although with increasing awareness of Latter-day Saint contributions to film and television, it is natural to contemplate forums and distinctions that celebrate this community of artists.

The first ever "International Young LDS Film Festival" was organized by Austrian filmmaker Christian Vuissa and was held November 30 through December 1st in Provo, Utah. But this event, as its name implies, was a festival for less prominent filmmakers, and not an Academy Awards-like analog. Established feature filmmakers such as Blair Treu were present as speakers, judges, etc., but their works were not part of any competition. Only short films and screenplays submitted to the festival were judged in the competition. Film awards went to Chris Bowman ("The Wrong Brother"), Brian Petersen ("Closure") and Brett Bolander ("Crushed"). Screenplay awards went to Jongiorgi Enos, Randy Astle and Cameron Hopkins.

Perhaps the largest award ceremony held by Latter-day Saint artists is the annual PEARL Awards, sponsored by the Christian Centered Music Association. This event is essentially the "Latter-day Saint Grammy Awards," with dozens of awards focused entirely on music. Of interest to film fans is the PEARL Award for "Best Musical Presentation or Soundtrack." In the past this award has gone to composer/musicians such as Merrill Jenson and Sam Cardon for "American Prophet" and Kurt Bestor and Kenny Hodges for the "Lamb of God" soundtrack. One could consider this the closest thing to an LDS Oscar for "Best Film Score."

One of the most highly esteemed Latter-day Saint creative awards is the Association for Mormon Letters (AML) awards. Since 1977 the AML Awards have recognized literary excellence. Awards in such categories as Novel, Poetry, Short Fiction, and Devotional Literature have been awarded to dozens of luminaries of Latter-day Saint culture, including Martine Bates, Elouise Bell, Gideon O. Burton, Orson Scott Card, Dennis Clark, Marden J. Clark, Eugene England, Calvin Grondahl, Gordon B. Hinckley, Dean Hughes, Kathryn H. Kidd, Walter Kirn, Gerald N. Lund, Neal A. Maxwell, William Mulder, Chieko N. Okazaki, Linda Sillitoe, Emma Lou Thayne, Brady Udall, and Terry Tempest Williams.

The AML Awards are carefully adjudicated and are awarded only for work of outstanding merit and importance. When there is not a nominee in a particular category found to warrant the AML distinction, no award is given that year for that category.

Eight AML Drama Awards have been granted. The AML Drama Award might be seen as a sort of precursor to the AML Film award. The first AML Award for drama went to Thomas F. Rogers in 1983 for "God's Fools." After a ten-year hiatus, the AML Award for drama resumed in 1993, with an award to Neil LaBute for his play "In the Company of Men." Interestingly enough, it was LaBute's 1997 film version of this same work which secured for him the Filmmakers Trophy for best film at the Sundance Film Festival, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film.

Since LaBute's win in 1993, three AML Drama awards have gone to Eric Samuelsen, two to Tim Slover, and one to Margaret Blair Young. Slover, whose best known work has been the AML-winning off-Broadway success "A Joyful Noise" has also written two PBS specials: "Minerva Teichert: A Mission in Paint" (1988) and "A More Perfect Union: American Becomes A Nation" (1989). There are no film version yet of any works by Samuelsen or Young, but one hopes that there will be.

The 2000 AML Awards included, for the first time, an "Award for Film." The creation of this new category was prompted by the artistic success of the first modern commercially screened feature film made by and about Latter-day Saints: Richard Dutcher's "God's Army."

The AML citation reads, in part:

When considering Richard Dutcher's film God's Army, the immediate temptation is to focus on this film more for what it seems to herald than for what it actually is. Since LDS filmmaking has now so clearly taken such a major step forward with the release of God's Army, cinema can now be said to have joined the conversation with our culture that so many LDS novelists, playwrights, poets and essayists have been engaging in for generations. God's Army seems to presage a movement, a renaissance, in which Richard Dutcher, in the best LDS tradition, plays the role of pioneer.

And yet we ought not allow the God's Army event to overshadow the film itself. And it's such a lovely, intimate film, a film of understatement and modesty... Dutcher's writing has the same understated complexity as we find in the best fiction of Doug Thayer or John Bennion. His characters are rich, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional...

God's Army is a fine and an important film, but it was also a commercial success. That may be the most encouraging thing about it. And so, the Association for Mormon Letters honors not only a remarkable piece of LDS writing, but also the work of a producer of courage and tenacity, a director of vision and imagination, an actor of sensitivity and insight, and a marketer of creativity and skill. It is not hyperbole to declare God's Army the most remarkable and important film in the history of Mormon letters. It is a pleasure to honor this extraordinary movie.
The AML recognized "God's Army" both for its artistic merit as well as its historic importance. Because of its trend-setting nature, such far-reaching praise may not be repeated any time soon. But clearly the Association for Mormon Letters would like to grant awards in this category in the future.

It should be pointed out that AML awards are given to recognize works of literature (including drama and film) which have made extraordinary contributions to the field of Mormon letters. Thus, an AML Award is not necessarily given to the "best" novel or story or play in a given year. The AML are not a competition.

AML board member Terry L. Jeffress pointed out:

AML did award Richard Dutcher the 2000 AML Award for Film for his work on "God's Army." The word "best" does not appear in the title of this or any other the award category. The AML Awards recognize an individual for their contribution to the field of Mormon letters. In practice, the year's "best" novel does not necessarily make the greatest contribution to Mormon letters.

Some might point out that "Gods' Army" was an easy choice because it was the only "Mormon film" released commercially in 2000. But, unlike with the Academy Awards, there are no rules specifying commercial release as a requirement. Perhaps the AML Film Award could have gone to Kieth Merrill's extraordinary large screen epic "The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd," which was also released in 2000, although it was shown only in the Joseph Smith Building in Salt Lake City. But "Testaments" is a work commissioned by the Church. Perhaps it was not even have been considered by the AML. But the AML does not seem to exhibit anti-institutional bias. Deseret Book publications have been honored in the past, and in 2000 the AML Award for Personal Essay went to Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley for his book Standing for Something.

Could another contender for the "Award or Film" have been Neil LaBute's Showtime special "Bash: Latter-day Plays"? It, too, features Latter-day Saint characters. But perhaps this would only have been considered in the Drama category, because it was essentially a taping of the off-Broadway play.

And there is the question of films without Latter-day Saint characters. What about other year 2000 feature films such as LaBute's "Nurse Betty" or Bluth's "Titan A.E."? These were probably not considered. Should they be? While most AML Award recipients have featured overt LDS themes and characters, not all have. Anne Perry's Victorian mystery The Sins of the Wolf and Slover's "A Joyful Noise" are set before 1830 and certainly feature no Latter-day Saint characters, yet both won the AML Award. Card's AML-winning Xenocide features an Ender Wiggins who identifies himself as Catholic, forgetting his half-Mormon parentage (the philosophy and metaphysics of the novel, not the religious affiliation of the characters, are what caught the AML's attention). Martine Bates' The Dragon's Tapestry and The Prism Moon are outright sword-and-sorcery fantasies. Naturally all of these works exhibit Latter-day Saint ideas and motifs. But could not the same be said of "Titan A.E.," with its space-faring re-creation of the Pioneer Trek, Christological symbolism and planet-forming conclusion?

Perhap these questions are purely academic. Regardless of whether or not these other films were considered, the truth is that "God's Army" was more deserving of the AML "Award for Film" distinction than these other possibilities. Without even considering where it was shown, or whether or not it features Latter-day Saint characters, it is a better film than "Testaments", "Bash" or "Titan A.E." And "God's Army" is a better film than a number of year 2000 movies made by Latter-day Saints and released on video with little or no exposure in theaters, such as Kels Goodman's "Y2K, A Comedy", Treu's "The", Dayton's "Where the Red Fern Grows", Hendershot's "Message in a Cell Phone", Featherstone's "Return to the Secret Garden", Kemp's "Fedora", etc.

What will happen with the AML Film Award in the future? In the year 2001 there were two feature films made by and about Latter-day Saints: Richard Dutcher's "Brigham City" and Mitch Davis' "The Other Side of Heaven." It seems almost certain, and appropriate, that one of these will be singled out for the AML Film Award of 2001 in the realm of "Mormon Letters."

"Brigham City" was an excellent film, even better than "God's Army," and if it had no competition I would see nothing wrong with awarding Dutcher a second Film Award in a row. But "The Other Side of Heaven" offers serious competition, and I believe the AML will intensely consider the merits of both. With a budget 7 times higher than "Brigham City," and the guidance of Hollywood veterens such as Jerry Molen and John Garbett, I'm sure there are people who predict "Other Side" will be hard to beat. But I haven't seen it yet. And I'm not a judge.

In response to the original draft of these comments, AML Award coordinator Scott Parkin wrote to explain that in recent years the AML implemented a policy whereby no individual can receive the AML award in the same category twice in a row. In years past this was not the case (such as when Eric Samuelsen won for drama in consecutive years). But that rule is currently in force, and precludes Richard Dutcher's "Brigham City" from being recognized with the AML Award for Film.

"The Mountain Meadows Massacre", a documentary, was released on video this year, but it is doubtful that it will be considered a competitor in the Film "competition", although it has been shown at the Eclipse and Young LDS film festivals. Perhaps an AML Documentary Award will be implemented in order to consider the merits of films such as this one, as well as Triffo's "Men of Valour: Heroes of the Victoria Cross" and "Disasters of the Century", Swofford and Smoot's "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure", Van Wagenen's "The Haunted Desert: Archaelogy and the Dead Sea Scrolls", Chamberlain's "There's No Place Like Home," Brandon Arnold's "Loie", Durham's "Woodwork", and Mikita's "Sea Voyage of the Saints."

The question of whether or not to consider feature films without LDS characters may be a moot point this year. The release of LaBute's "Possession" was postponed until early 2002. Richard Rich's animated "Trumpet of the Swan" was the only other theatrically released non-documentary film of 2001 that was directed by a Latter-day Saint. "Trumpet of the Swan" is a lot of fun (my kids love the DVD), but it, along with family-friendly direct-to-video releases such as T.C. Christensen's "The Penny Promise" and "Bug Off!" are unlikely to be compared directly to "Brigham City" and "The Other Side of Heaven."

2002 will be the first year with serious, perhaps unpredictable competition, and some interesting questions to resolve. At least four feature films by and about Latter-day Saints are expected to be released to theaters in 2002: Kurt Hale's "The Singles Ward", Adam Anderegg's "Charly", Cary Derbidge and Ryan Little's "Out of Step" and Kels Goodman's "Handcart." From what I know about these productions, all of these will be excellent, artistically accomplished films with wide viewership.

Perhaps these four films alone will be the field of nominees for AML's Film Award of 2002. But each of these films was helmed by a director who has never before had anything shown in commercial theaters. Judged purely on artistic merit, it is unlikely that any of these four films will surpass LaBute's much anticipated "Possession." On top of the fact that this is LaBute's 4th major film, he also had studio backing, and a much larger budget. And the talent: The four "LDS Market" films feature incredible talent: Will Swenson, Jeremy Elliott, Michael Buster, Heather Beers, Connie Young, Kim Wares, Daryn Tufts, Alison Akin Clark. But can they compete with LaBute's direction of Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, and Jeremy Northam?

Realistically, it may be necessary for the AML to officially restrict the field to films with overt LDS themes and characters, and leave "Possession" to the Academy Awards voters.

There are two distinct possibilities for what will happen after 2002: If "The Singles Ward", "Out of Step", "Charly" and "Handcart" (or at least some of these) are good movies, and they are commercially successful, the following years will see the advent of yet more LDS-themed films, of increasing quality. But if these are mediocre or embarrassing films, and if they fail to attact audiences (and returns on investments), the AML Film Award may be retired because there will be nobody to give it to.

Article written created 4 December 2001. Last minor modification 9 January 2002.

On 2 March 2002 the Association for Mormon Letters held their annual meeting, at which time they announced the recipients of the AML Awards for the year 2001. No award was granted in the Film category.

LDS-themed commercial feature films released during calendar year 2001 include: "Brigham City" (ineligible by current AML rules which preclude granting an AML Award to the same person in the same category two years in a row) and "The Other Side of Heaven."