Long before B.C. serial polygamist Winston Blackmore creeped out audiences by telling CNN's Larry King about his 20 wives and at least 100 children, Ottawa-born actress Kelly Rowan had vowed to take on a religious sect whose men view women as chattel.
Two full years before Blackmore's debut on Larry King last December, the former O.C. star had knocked on the door of Toronto's Shaftesbury Films, pitching a fictionalized drama about a woman who escapes a commune of fundamentalist Mormons (which bears an eerie resemblance to Blackmore's polygamy stronghold of roughly 700 faithful in Bountiful, B.C.) Sickened by what she had read and watched about polygamist communities in Canada and the United States, Rowan decided that it was time to make a program that lifted the veil on a religion that sanctions men marrying young girls (some under 16) -- and, at times, intermarriage between family members.
"The purpose of the film really was to cause some dialogue," asserts Shaftesbury Films chair Christina Jennings, who shot the film with a $5-million budget. "Kelly's goal -- like ours -- was to make a movie that gets people talking and thinking about polygamy, about how society can possibly justify men having a whole bunch of wives and the taking of young girls."
Rowan, who stars in the film and has a co-executive producer's title along with Jennings, shot In God's Country in and around Hamilton last summer. The finished product, which co-stars Desperate Housewives alumnus Richard Burgi, airs tonight at 9 ET on CTV.
In the TV movie, Burgi plays Bishop Josiah Leavitt, who takes Rowan's character, Judith Joseph, as his eighth wife. The couple have four kids together, but Judith is expelled from her community by her husband after she tells child protection services that her 12-year-old daughter was raped.
Judith struggles to build a new life in a strange world, but is forced to return to the commune when she learns that the Bishop is plotting to wed her 16-year-old daughter (from another marriage).
"Ultimately this is the heroic journey from a woman's standpoint," says Burgi, who started his career playing Chad Rollo on the daytime soap Another World. "You have a woman who's kind of going along with the system, who grew up this way, and ultimately, all systems are saying it's not working.
"She had to muster extraordinary courage and will, in order to really take care of her children the way she believes they need to be taken care of," adds Burgi, who is best known for playing Susan's cad of an ex-husband, Karl, on Desperate Housewives.
"This movie really encapsulates that struggle between what she's drawn to -- which is wanting to do right by her community and by what she's grown up with -- and her own inner voice that's telling her this is not working."
On Larry King, Blackmore showed that there was a lot of truth in Rowan's fiction. He told the talk-show host that while none of his 20 wives are currently underage, some were "just barely" under 16 when he married them.
"There's one that was, and one that lied about their age, but that's not unusual for women, is it?" he said.
Blackmore was investigated by British Columbia authorities early in 2006 over alleged misconduct. In late September, the RCMP submitted a report to the Crown after a long probe into alleged misconduct by some of Bountiful's residents.
The Crown said last fall that it was determining whether any criminal offences had been committed.
So far, Jennings says, she has not received any hate mail or angry protests from fundamentalist Mormons, who are not to be confused with North America's 12-million-strong, mainstream Mormons -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- who renounced plural marriage in 1890.
Fundamentalist Mormons follow the teachings of Joseph Smith, who believed that a man must have at least three wives and as many children as possible in order to reach the highest level of heaven.
Last August, U.S. polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs was arrested and is awaiting trial in the States on charges linked to marriages he allegedly arranged between underage girls and older men in both Utah and Arizona.
Polygamy is illegal in Canada, Jennings notes. But for whatever reasons, lawmakers rarely enforce anti-polygamy laws. "I find it extraordinary that polygamist communities exist in North America today," the producer adds.
With a straight face, Blackmore also told King that it's "biblically sound" for just the men in his faith to have multiple marriages. If any of his wives were to take another husband, he added, she would have to leave the society.