The mainstream response to Netflix’s 2022 docuseries Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey can be summarised by the opening line of Tara Watson’s review in Punkee: ‘If you like your Netflix docos to not only inform you, but infuriate you, then Keep Sweet: Pray And Obey is your next binge.’ The series features archival footage from its Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint (FLDS) subjects:—a sea of women twirling in white dresses; leader Warren Jeffs preaching with a high-pitched lilt; dozens of children forming a line, corralled by a single woman—and is shaped by former members sharing their stories. Where we hear first-hand from women who escaped from and testified against the leaders, it deserves its audience.

At the culmination of Keep Sweet, however, we see what detectives found at the heart of the temple on the FLDS Texas ranch: a white, windowless room, with a white bed in the middle. In a series about the leader of a polygamist sect known for underage brides, it takes little stretch of the imagination to understand the meaning of such a room. And then, an audio recording is played—a recording of what happened in there, made by Jeffs and kept in a vault.

According to co-director Rachel Dretzin, the decision to include the recording was a ‘delicate’ one, involving negotiation with Netflix. But all parties eventually agreed, ‘you do need to directly experience some of the horror of what he did in that temple to just appreciate some of the depravity he was willing to go to.’ So, the subject at the heart of this decision was ‘you’—the audience.

Responses to the show in question have tended to take one of two angles: it’s awful what happened in the sect; and how dare they share that recording with me without more warning. Both are fair. Less frequently, viewers have questioned that decision directly: ‘How does anyone think this is okay?’ It’s a question I asked myself as it dawned on me what I was hearing: a man’s soft voice in prayer, the chorus of women in joining in on another wedding night, this time between Jeffs and a twelve-year-old girl—his youngest bride yet.

Consumption of docuseries reportedly increased during the first year of the pandemic. With this arose the enjoyment of a suite of ‘real’ footage and audio, at times originally recorded by the documentary’s subjects, who wanted to keep evidence of their journeys for reasons of their own. We can watch footage from so-portrayed narcissists (Joe Exotic in Tiger King, 2020) and fraudsters (Elizabeth Holmes in The Inventor, HBO, 2019), taken from their original contexts and re-purposed for entertainment and judgement by a population several times that of Oceania. And there is for sure delight in watching Elizabeth Holmes march across her offices in Silicon Valley, in a preening effort to document her own rise to greatness, knowing that the footage has ended up where she would least have wanted it to. There’s your greatness, the audience sniggers, wishing her to receive a harsher sentence than she likely will as white-collar criminal. Here, The Inventor does something that law enforcement can’t: Holmes has been made a public fool with the help of her own footage. Though Holmes is somewhat insulated by being extremely wealthy, it’s understandable that the directors would choose to include this footage, which paints a rich portrait of Holmes and her world that viewers would not otherwise see.

By playing the recording made by Jeffs, Netflix and the makers of Keep Sweet expose the audience to possibly the worst thing he has done, perpetrated against the ultimate figure of innocence, as part of a narrative where he meets a measure of justice (a prison sentence). At the same time, there is punishment in publicity. Nobody outside of those in the room—including most of the rest of the FLDS—was supposed to see or hear what happened there. It’s a justice sequence consistent with Dolf Zillman’s disposition theory.

Empathy—and what greater figure for empathy than a child—is the driving force of disposition theory, which suggests enjoyment of entertainment media is high when liked characters receive positive outcomes and when disliked characters experience negative outcomes. The filmmakers elicit repugnance by exposing Jeffs’ secret—creating then punishing a disliked character—while celebrating the success of the women instrumental in his incarceration. But we never hear from the twelve-year-old-girl. Any experience of empathy here is based on an idea, not on the only person who has directly experienced the trauma—and a representation can’t come close, despite what Dretzin might claim.

There is always a pool of material that doesn’t make it into a documentary’s final cut, and the makers must choose an angle out of dozens of possibilities. Regarding the FLDS, for example, the abandonment of ‘surplus’ boys and details of indoctrination techniques are just some of the other available narratives. In The Subject of Documentary, Michael Renov writes of the ‘pitting of ethics against epistemology’: a documentary maker must balance a potential conflict between ethics and the pursuit of knowledge, bearing a responsibility to both subject and viewer. Scholars of communication Arthur Raney and Sophie Janicke write that as social beings living in groups, morality is central to our lives, and therefore, our narratives: ‘That is, stories are unavoidably social and are therefore, likewise, unavoidably moral.’

Ethics and morals are reflected in how a documentary is shaped, and what is included at the expense of other material. Keep Sweet is undoubtedly about a group whose code of morals differs from that of the greater part of Netflix’s audience, and the audio recording is the narrative climax, a horrific, resounding testimony of Jeffs’ wrongdoings.

There are countless documentaries exploring violence and abuse and tragedies, and many that show alternatives to direct representation of the worst moments of their subjects’ lives and deaths. In Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog documents the last five years of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell’s life, drawing from over 100 hours of footage recorded by Treadwell, right up until his death alongside girlfriend Amie Huguenard. Treadwell and Huguenard were mauled to death by a bear, the audio of which was recorded by Treadwell’s camera. Rather than include the recording in the documentary, Herzog is shown listening to it via headphones, which he requests be turned off after thirty seconds. The audio remains in the care of loved ones, locked in a bank vault, never to be shared.

In the 2020 documentary film The Dissident, which investigates the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Khashoggi’s loved ones are closely involved in shaping the narrative. In the investigation by Turkish police, audio of Khashoggi’s murder was uncovered from the Saudi consulate. The viewers know such an audio exists but experience it only through transcripts and the account of Agnès Callamard of the UN, who led the enquiry into the assassination. She describes the experience of listening to it; how the sawing of the body for disposal was the most disturbing part. Nobody who listens to Khashoggi’s fiancé, friends and colleagues describe his warmth, dignity and journalistic integrity, and the pain of losing him to such violence, could argue for the need to hear the murder to understand the story.

Unlike Keep Sweet, fellow victims of violence and the deceased’s loved ones were involved in the making of Grizzly Man and The Dissident. Yet, while there were possibly people involved who may have met and would have cared about Jeffs’ youngest ‘wife’, she herself is notably absent, and is by all accounts last known to have returned to the FLDS. Is it here that the justification resides? That there was nobody close enough to the girl behind the scenes to draw a line, nobody to withhold consent?

Prior to the docuseries, the audio recording did serve a notable purpose: it played a role in Jeffs’ conviction. Bystander footage of police brutality has performed a similar function—for instance, a video captured by a witness helped convict Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd. As political scientist Melanye Price wrote in The New York Times in 2020, such evidence is necessary for justice: the footage of Floyd showed its power not only in the legal proceedings, but for its ability to incite the white rage needed for a swell in allyship. Ultimately, however, shared over and over, these recordings become a chilling form of entertainment masquerading as ‘tools of instruction to teach lessons that are already familiar to us.’

It is difficult to imagine Netflix attempting to justify using the footage of a murder in a documentary. But in a sea of docuseries for streaming, I wonder where we will find the line: not at the floating torso of Robert Durst’s most isolated victim in The Jinx; not at Kathleen Peterson’s bloodied body at the base of The Staircase. If the potential to draw an audience—under the guise of providing ‘direct experience’ and engendering empathy—outweighs the potential for protest, increasingly competitive streaming platforms may continue to push the boundaries. While they vary widely in their political meaning, the examples I have used share a potential for (re-)traumatising viewers and exploiting subjects: as Price writes, we need rules of engagement and reproduction, whether that manifests as law or as audience response.

Attempting to pinpoint when the employment of cruelty is worthwhile, Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty that ‘sometimes it’s as simple as the difference between a piece of good art and a piece of bad art.’ Perhaps Keep Sweet is such bad art that it is not really art; it is really entertainment. And perhaps I insult Maggie Nelson by quoting her here: art may be made with or employ examples of cruelty, but playing an audio recording in the name of Truth is anything but—true crime rarely is.

It is possible I am angry because I was drawn into salacious not-really-art, and I was entertained and disgusted, and entertained because I was disgusted and kept going until the show reached an ending that made me nauseous. Though I didn’t know what was coming, I felt a sense of complicity, as if I’d paired up with a friend to tease another friend, and realised too late that it wasn’t a game—it was genuine cruelty.

In this way, documentary shows how willing viewers are to be led by the hand, lacking moral direction of their own, into whatever it is that keeps playing before them. Maggie Nelson, again, queries the repetitive sharing of human atrocities, even as she looks for exceptions:

I believe that the obsessive contemplation of our inhumanities can end up convincing us of the inevitability of our badness, and that we likely do ourselves a grave disservice by staying riveted by top-of-the-hour, ad nauseam ‘proof ‘ that humans always have steadily pursued (and, the spurious logic goes, thus always will pursue) the bloody businesses of genocide, state-sponsored war, terrorism, and individual acts of sadism across space and time.

Without consent, no matter the quality of the art, there is no justification for playing the audio recording of somebody’s rape: not for audience experience, nor for sympathy, nor for entertainment. Nelson’s ad nauseam proof belongs only in a court room, and only as long as it can spur action, in the hands of people willing to turn outrage into protest. If something new and regenerative is to be created from cruelty, not as ‘obsessive contemplation’ but as an intermediary between audience and willing subject, the experience of the viewer can become one of intimacy and care, of witness to conscious vulnerability, and of celebration of the human impulse to share stories.

Unlike the recording, Warren Jeffs’ punishment is anything but real: he has continued to wield power from behind bars, demanding his members fast and pray daily for his escape. The documentary doesn’t exist in his world. One of the former FLDS women summarises it best in Keep Sweet: ‘In our minds, the police, even the President of the United States had no authority over us. Warren Jeffs was our president. He was the Prophet.’

The child in the recording would be nearly thirty now, and if she has returned to the FLDS, also lives in a different world to the documentary. By their own ethics and morals, Netflix’s audience can hope for her freedom—but what would she find out here? A recording of her abuse on one of the biggest streaming platforms in the world.

Louisa Buchanan

Louisa is a writer and editor from Geelong, with work featured in SCUM, Overland and Turbine | Kapohau. She likes writing about unspoken culture, things she watches and reads, and feelings.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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