'Cleanflix' exposes Utah's conservative culture to the world

Documentary about edited-movie biz debuts in Toronto.

The Salt Lake Tribune/September 10, 2009

When a video store in American Fork started editing a Kate Winslet nude scene from copies of "Titanic," Hollywood barely noticed.

When a cottage industry sprung up to trim "naughty bits" from VHS tapes and rent out pre-edited versions of R-rated films, movie studios responded with a copyright lawsuit that put the stores out of business -- and the rest of the industry tried to ignore the dust-up.

At North America's biggest film festival, the short-lived edited-movie industry and the Utah culture that spawned it will get lots of attention from movie lovers and Hollywood power players -- thanks to two Provo filmmakers whose documentary, "Cleanflix," premieres today at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The documentary considers how the Cleanflix industry "has been popular other places, but it took this culture to create it," said co-director Andrew James.

Two conflicting influences combined in Utah to create Cleanflix stores, said James and co-director Joshua Ligairi, both 30. One is "this idea of the culture wanting to protect themselves from what they perceive to be evil or bad influences," James said. "There's this cultural understanding not to watch R-rated movies."

The other, Ligairi said, was "the Mormon movement to align itself with contemporary mainstream conservative Christianity, and just to homogenize with American culture, too."

Some faithful church members, despite being proud of their moral values, feel conflicted about being out-of-step with popular or artistic culture. As Ligairi explained the conflict: "Mormons are sick of being compared with the Amish or whatever. They want to be part of the cultural zeitgeist."

That paradox, of not being able to see movies like "The Matrix" -- which was one of the Cleanflix stores most popular titles -- created a problem.

Both filmmakers grew up steeped in Mormon culture. Jones, originally from Atlanta, graduated from Brigham Young University with an English degree. Ligairi grew up in San Diego, and attended what was then Utah Valley State College -- until one semester, when he was working on Steven Greenstreet's "This Divided State," the documentary about Michael Moore's 2004 visit to the Orem campus, and failed all his classes that semester.

Ligairi and James had started to work separately on films about the Cleanflix phenomenon when a mutual friend -- one of the film's producers, Xavier Gutierrez -- suggested they join forces. They started shooting in 2006, just before U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch ruled against the video-cutting companies in a copyright lawsuit filed by 16 Hollywood directors, and forced the firms to shut down operations.

While making the film, James and Ligairi found much of Hollywood didn't want to reopen the issue. "For them, the issue was finished," Ligairi said. "They had won the lawsuit, they put it behind them, they didn't want to continue the dialogue."

They requested interviews with some of the directors in the lawsuit -- such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Robert Redford -- to no avail. "We were nobodies," Ligairi said.

They did get interviews with directors familiar with the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including BYU alum Neil LaBute and Utah County maverick Richard Dutcher.

Since the movie was accepted by Toronto, the pair have gotten plenty of attention from Hollywood. Daily Variety , the Hollywood trade paper, named "Cleanflix" as one of the 10 documentaries to watch at this year's festival, while Toronto programmer Thom Powers praised the film because it "raises all kinds of provocative questions and delivers a powerful ending."

Still, in a festival where more than 300 titles will be screened, including some big Hollywood titles, the two emerging filmmakers from Provo know the challenge will be to get noticed.

"We're playing against films by the Coen brothers and Steven Soderbergh and Michael Moore," Ligairi said. "Heath Ledger's last film is there, George Clooney has two movies there. How do we get some attention in that crowd?"

The filmmakers hope the compelling subject matter of "Cleanflix" will draw an audience. "People love movies about movies, and people are interested in Mormonism," James said, "and clearly our movie is about both of those things."

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