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The Mormon Feminists Fighting for Women's Right to Join the Priesthood

Mar 1 2016 8:15 PM
The Mormon Feminists Fighting for Women's Right to Join the Priesthood

Abby Hansen. Screenshot via Where We Stand

Kristine Stolakis's new documentary, "Where We Stand," follows a stay-at-home mom turned vocal feminist advocate, as she navigates the repercussions of her unpopular activism in her predominantly Mormon suburb.

Kristine Stolakis is a San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker who wants to make the world a better place. In a culture saturated with irony, Stolakis is a refreshing wellspring of sincerity; there is nothing cynical about her work. Before embarking on a graduate degree in documentary film at Stanford, she studied cultural anthropology at NYU and worked as a teaching artist and program manager for youth in underserved communities.

This commitment to social change flows through all of her films. Her short documentary Balancing Act explores the exploited tradition of West African hambone dance through the story of a young circus performer in West Oakland. In The Typist, Stolakis takes on discrimination against LGBTQ service members through the story of a Korean War veteran tasked with writing dishonorable discharges. Her subjects are fascinating, her films rife with thoughtful conviction.

Her latest, Where We Stand, is the story of a controversial group of Mormon feminists fighting for women's ordination in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The documentary follows Abby Hansen, a stay-at-home mom turned vocal advocate for Ordain Women, as she navigates the repercussions of her unpopular activism against her church in her predominantly Mormon suburb. Stolakis is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to raise completion and distribution funds. The full film will premiere in film festivals this winter.

Broadly caught up with Stolakis on backyard activism, empathetic filmmaking and finding feminism outside of our worldly existence.

Broadly: Your past documentaries are an eclectic mix of stories featuring stand-up comedians, black circus performers, and LGBTQ service members. What drew you to the story of Mormon feminists?
Kristine Stolakis: I was really interested in finding a story of feminism manifesting in some unexpected place. I think we're at this interesting point in feminism. You know, ten years ago there was a lot of fear amongst women my age to identify as a feminist. Today feminism is so mainstream that we can see someone like Beyoncé announce she's a feminist on a stage in a nationally broadcast concert.

So I wanted to tell a modern story that reflected how feminism has really changed and morphed into something that exists not just in academic literature, not just in the women's rights movement of the 1970s, but something that is happening on the ground here and now in a lot of different ways. I started researching feminist activists who were doing different things around the country. Through that process I found an article on Kate Kelly, a woman who was excommunicated for her refusal to stop advocating for women's ordination, and was immediately enthralled. I spoke with about thirty people all over the country before deciding to focus the film on Abby Hansen, an activist in suburban Utah.

Articulating your unpopular beliefs to people you love and respect can be very uncomfortable and hard.

What did you find most compelling about Abby?
For Abby and other feminists in predominantly Mormon areas, this is their community, its their home, its their entire family, it's the place where their kids have made all of their best friends. I was so impressed by Abby because she was doing activism right in her own backyard. Articulating your unpopular beliefs to people you love and respect can be very uncomfortable and hard. Regardless of whether or not you are a Mormon or a feminist, Abby is an incredibly inspiring person. She is engaging with these issues in a way that have immediate consequences. She's elbowing her way through it. It made me think about how hard it really is to challenge norms, how hard it is to go out there and be the minority saying that something is wrong. I was amazed by how immediate that felt.

Did anything unexpected happen for you personally while making this film?
My interest in this subject originated in an intellectual place but grew into something very personal. I was raised religiously as a Catholic. I pulled away from Catholicism when I got older because I didn't agree with the way women were spoken about, and especially the way LGBTQ individuals were treated. I believed in the ideals of equality, and it confused me as to whether these ideals of equality could translate to my religion. So it was very striking to me that the Mormon women I met decided to embark on this fight for equality within their faith.

As a religious person, you believe in something bigger than yourself that has a truth and a logic outside of your worldly existence. It's really hard in that space to say, "I disagree with something that, in this case, the Mormon Church said is doctrine. You know, I disagree with something that is dictated by God." What these women told me was that they had had personal revelations with God. He had spoken to them directly and that they were trying to advocate for something that they knew was true and right in their personal relationship with God. Many people ask Mormon feminists—if the Church rejects you, why don't you just leave? These women told me they felt that Mormonism is the way to communicate with God: "Why would you ever give up the opportunity to be in touch with God?" Which I think is a really beautiful way to put it.

These women told me they felt that Mormonism is the way to communicate with God: 'Why would you ever give up the opportunity to be in touch with God?'

What is the significance of the title, Where We Stand?
"Where we stand" comes from feminist writer Audre Lorde: "Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing." I thought these words perfectly encapsulated the theme of this film. There's this narrative that there are secular progressives and religious conservatives and no one in between. And that's just not true. Kate Kelly, one of the founders of Ordain Women, says, "You know, I live in the United States where we've gone to wars I don't believe in, we've tortured individuals, which I don't support, and yet, I'm not moving to France. I'm staying here and trying to make my community better." And man, isn't that true. In the end that's the thesis of this film: that idea of trying to make the world a better place right where you are.

You can support feminist filmmaker Kristine Stolakis through the Indiegogo campaign she is running to raise completion and distribution funds for Where We Stand. The film will be screening at the Thin Line Film Fest, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Fargo Film Festival, and the Omaha Film Festival. Interested Community groups and educational institutions can contact the filmmaker directly to arrange a community screening.

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