Growing up in Chicago, raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gregory Barnes remembers watching a lot of inspirational VHS tapes.
One that stuck in his memory, Barnes said, was titled “Godly Sorrow Leads to Repentance,” in which a young couple are preparing to marry — but the road to the altar is interrupted when the bride-to-be confesses a transgression to her bishop, one for which she must repent before the wedding can take place.
(The 1992 short film features a young Brigham Young University student named Aaron Eckhart — who has gone on to a substantial movie career, most famously as Gotham City’s district attorney, Harvey Dent, in “The Dark Knight.” This film, though, doesn’t show up on Eckhart’s IMDb page.)
Barnes was inspired to make his own version of such a movie — and the result is the 12-minute comic short “The Touch of the Master’s Hand.” It will premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday on its online platform, festival.sundance.org.
The short-film programs will be available to stream around the clock, from Thursday through Feb. 3, to festival pass holders.
“It’s really important to share the Mormon experience in a very authentic way,” Barnes said in a recent phone interview from Marfa, Texas, where he’s taking part in an artist-in-residence program.
The short film follows Elder Hyde (Samuel Sylvester), a young missionary stationed in Veracruz, Mexico, who’s about to go into his interview with his mission president (Samuel Whitehill). Elder Hyde hopes to make it through the interview without embarrassing himself — but then he decides there’s something he must confess.
The film, Barnes said, is “a dark comedy about basically this kid that convinces himself that he’s a junkie — that he’s as bad as a heroin addict.” Elder Hyde’s addiction is to pornography. (The specific object of the missionary’s desire is the movie’s punchline.)
Barnes said he was inspired, in part, by a campaign launched by late church President Gordon B. Hinckley against the sin of pornography.
“I just find it very comedic that this 90-year-old man was pleading to teenagers to not look at porn,” Barnes said. “In the Book of Mormon, sexual sin is second only to murder. I can think of a lot of worse things that fall between the two, personally.”
Much of being raised in the Latter-day Saint faith, Barnes said, “has to do with this specific sexuality, masculinity, that the church really wants to propose.” Part of that, he said, includes “no sex before marriage, not to awaken any kind of sexual feelings.”
When Barnes served his Latter-day Saint mission — in Salta, Argentina, from 2009 to 2011, when he was still a practicing member of the faith — he never committed the sin his film’s character does, but for a less-than-holy reason.
“I had a mission president that scared me a lot,” Barnes said. “I never masturbated my whole mission, because I was terrified. I said, ‘I’m not messing with this. I don’t want to have to talk to this guy about this.’”
When Barnes sought to cast the mission president in his film, “I was looking for someone that was that kind of authoritative, burly, stocky kind of man, with an Idaho farmer vibe.”
Barnes also wanted to capture the atmosphere of a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse. He decided to make his script, an assignment for his Master of Fine Arts degree at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, only when he was given permission to film in a ward house in Southern California.
“The aesthetic of Mormonism is really unique,” Barnes said. “Seeing carpet on the [meetinghouse] wall like that makes my stomach turn, but I also find it completely nostalgic. … I can watch the movie and I can smell it. I think a lot of people with Mormon backgrounds can feel the same.”
Barnes compares filming in an authentic meetinghouse — from the gym to the baptismal font — to the Roman Catholic churches where scenes from “The Godfather” or “The Deer Hunter” were shot. “What I love about it,” he said, “is the anthropological element, getting to see these cultural celebrations.”
Barnes hopes to expand on “The Touch of the Master’s Hand,” to create a feature-length anthology of stories about missionaries. His goal, he said, is “to explore the Mormon experience on film, something I felt has been seldom depicted in a secular way.”