Gregory Barnes’ The Touch of the Master’s Hand is a Mormon movie, a twelve-minute short about a young missionary ashamed of his masturbation habit. It premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and won the Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction. Despite its look into the cultural oddity of Mormonism, the film is relatable to folks outside the Mormon spectrum, tackling cultural themes broader than its religious background. It’s about sexual shame and seeking absolution from authority figures. It’s about adapting your personality and behavior to fit in. It’s about how the individual struggles within the social body.
Mormon missionaries speak the language of the area where they serve, so this film, set in Mexico, is entirely in halting, non-native Spanish. The film opens with Elder Hyde (Samuel Sylvester) praying “Lo hice otra vez.” (I did it again.) He knocks his front tooth out in a toppling human pyramid and later meets with President Packard (Samuel Whitehill), who interrogates him about his faith and worthiness. Elder Hyde hesitates and confesses to masturbating. Packard asks if he watches pornography, and Hyde produces a bootlegged Avatar DVD. Packard advises him to repent, and Hyde snaps the DVD into a million rainbow pieces. An accordion door opens on a blue-tiled baptismal font, where a smiling Hyde, having repented, baptizes three Latino men.
Barnes is based in Los Angeles and New York City. He’s an MFA candidate in film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His film stems from personal experience in the church—while no longer a believing Mormon, he served a full-time mission in Argentina and graduated with a BA in media studies from Brigham Young University. While Barnes is surprisingly sincere about Mormonism and spirituality for a person who just released a Mormon sex comedy, he shifts comfortably between that sincerity and an offbeat, almost teenage brand of humor.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Emily Brown: Your movie seems to focus on leadership and hierarchical structure in the church. What’s your experience within that structure?
Gregory Barnes: My own experience with the religion was trying to fit my life into the mold of Mormonism. There’s so much emphasis on not listening to yourself and instead listening to these old men who know better than you do. I was very interested in making a Mormon movie, which meant the character’s agency had to be second to what the leaders tell him to do. And those leaders are kind of the solution for him.
EB: I noticed different performances of authority from the various missionaries and the mission president. I’m interested in those contrasting ways of performing authority. Can you tell me a little about that?
GB: You’re absolutely right. I’m so glad you noticed. Part of the fun of making this movie was remembering the different types of elders you run into. So you have the first elder, who’s very charismatic, kind of a hotshot, has a feminine energy to him. You have the nerdy good guy, probably knows all the scriptures by heart and has a sweetie look, almost like a grandma. And then you have the mission president, who is very much modeled after my own mission president, who was an emotionally detached guy, very serious. My experience doing worthiness interviews during Zone Conference was basically that you’d be in there for five minutes. If something’s up with an elder, if they’re in there longer than five minutes, it’s very noticeable. You’re like, “Wow. It’s really slowed down. Elder Barnes has been in there for a while.”
EB: Elder Hyde’s sense of unworthiness seems reflected in his lack of a leadership role. He sees himself as a sinful person, and he’s a low-ranking missionary. And then, when he repents, he baptizes three people, which is hugely symbolic of authority and worthiness. That got me thinking about how there is a perceived correlation between righteousness and leadership in the church. What’s your experience with that kind of correlation?
GB: There is a very specific reason why, at the end of the movie, he is baptizing three men. Male membership is the thing that keeps the organization running. I would love to quote scripture to you—there’s this idea that there are earthly things you can do that require heavenly action, which leads to this terrible idea that the more worthy you are, the more money you’ll have and the more successful you will be. I have the scripture here. It’s Doctrine and Covenants 130, verses 20 and 21. “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” So we see Elder Hyde do the right thing, the right Mormon thing, and he is immediately given this reward. That’s Mormon logic.
EB: Wow. I haven’t thought about that in a long time. It’s making me think about Shakespeare plays like Richard III, where physical deformities are correlated with wickedness. We say we’ve gotten past that, yet we still believe there are very physical manifestations of personal wickedness or righteousness.
Church-made movies are almost like folktales in the ways that they confirm the church worldview; good things happen to people who make good choices, and bad things happen to people who make bad choices. And your movie, even though it’s satire, very delicately confirms the worldview of Mormonism. Sometimes I wonder if believing Mormons wouldn’t recognize the satire of it. Did you consciously choose a folky vehicle, where the missionary is directly rewarded for repenting?
GB: Well, I love that word. To me, Mormonism is incredibly folky. It’s America’s religion. It came out of the middle of nowhere, upstate New York, the Finger Lakes. Joseph Smith grew up hearing all sorts of fantastic stories about treasure in the region. That’s part of Mormon mysticism. We have these fantastic new Bible stories that are very folky and cheesy, and I’m definitely embracing that style.
You touched on an interesting thing at the top of the question—wondering if true-blue Mormons would get it. My mom is quite Mormon. The use of the words masturbation and pornography—it is a sex comedy, after all—did make her uncomfortable. But my mom just said that she was so relieved that Elder Hyde did the right thing at the end. So these people are not offended. I think it’s because… it’s complicated, but fundamentally, I think it’s important to treat your characters with empathy and sympathy. I’m not interested in movies that poke fun or belittle anyone. No one wants to watch a movie that’s like, “Oh, those dang goofy Mormons.” That’s not funny—that’s just boring. It’s much more interesting if you can treat them as people. You get to see them. You want to celebrate with them! You want him to baptize them. You see how bad he feels, and you just kind of want him to do the right thing in the end, even if it’s completely bizarre.
EB: Yeah, even if it’s against your worldview. You did a really good job of showing some flaws that are institutional or in the cultural body, without making the characters seem out of their minds. It doesn’t dehumanize them.
Your film illustrates a very accurate picture of missionary life. It resonated with my personal experience of Mormonism, more than any other film depiction that I’ve seen. I found this anecdote about Plato where somebody asks him what he should do to understand Greek culture, and Plato says to read comedic plays by Aristophanes. What do you think about comedy as a vehicle for cultural description or social commentary?
GB: What I wanted to try to explore in this movie is being able to address personal trauma with comedy. And our generation’s experiences in Mormonism, if I may be so bold as to speak for many people, were traumatic. I think trauma is something that you can turn and laugh at, and with this levity, you can really get to know the people and the culture of Mormonism. It’s a welcoming door, comedy. Heavy dramas, I think, are often more alienating than inviting.
Sitting around talking with men our age about sexual shame, we say stuff like, “Oh, Gordon B. Hinckley told me not to look at porn, I looked at porn, I felt so bad.” That’s just palling around with boys, and it’s masturbation, and that’s very funny. But when I talk to women my age, it’s more like, “I was told my worth was defined by my husband and that I needed to get married and behave a specific way.” You realize that women’s experiences in the church are incredibly difficult, and meanwhile, we’re over here crying like, “Oh, my Bishop told me not to touch my peepee. I’m so sad.” So there is this inherent absurdity in the situation.
And I think any belief in God is, to some level or extent, based in the absurd. My dad emailed me, and he was talking about how Kierkegaard said that any time eternal ideas are expressed in temporal terms, it has to be absurd. It’s absurd that God and the Holy Ghost and Jesus are three individuals in one. It’s absurd that God came to Earth and died. It’s absurd to think that Joseph Smith saw Jesus. The interruption of the eternal into the temporal is inherently absurd. And that is, for many people, a call to action for belief. But I think absurdity is just absurdity and inherently comedic.
Mormonism in general should laugh at itself more. Mormon stories have seldom been depicted in a secular way, and that’s because the Mormon Church has actively discouraged people from telling Mormon stories. The Mormon Church wants to control the culture completely. And I realize that’s kind of a bold statement, but I really do think so.
EB: I really agree with you about the tenuousness between the nihilism of absurdity and the transcendence of absurdity. I think what you were saying is that you don’t believe that absurdity is always in reference to the transcendent. But I do think if poetry and comedy have a close relationship, it is in juxtaposing unrelated things in a surprising way, a way that reveals their absurdity or transcendence. And I see that in your movie—this juxtaposition of contrasting truths. When I try to look at it critically and think, which things make this absurd? I can’t really pull them out. I can’t isolate which elements of it are false, because they all feel like things that could absolutely happen, real people that I’ve seen. The things that are absurd about it are also the things that are completely true.
Harold Rosenberg wrote that “Comic irony sets whole cultures side by side in a multiple exposure, causing valuation to spring out of the recital of facts alone.” I think your film succeeds comedically on the basis of this kind of juxtapositional and mostly non-editorialized irony, without explicitly lampooning its characters or commenting on their actions, the film tacitly unveils the disproportionate harshness of the church’s stance on masturbation and pornography. What did you do to balance the sincerity of individual religiosity with the absurdity of institutional attitudes and practices?
GB: There’s a question I had to think about a lot—is Mormonism true in this film? Absolutely. Mormonism is true to every single missionary, to everyone that participates in the movie. And what’s fascinating is if you have Mormons watch the movie, they just recognize it as the way it is. They don’t see the mission president as an absurd character. They just take him as the authority.
EB: What I’m interested in with the Harold Rosenberg quote is how it says comedic irony comes out of juxtaposing two cultures side by side. And when I read that I thought, yeah, that’s what Greg’s movie is doing. And then I wondered, okay, well, what are the two cultures that are being set side by side? Even just hearing you talk about how some very orthodox Mormons have responded to the movie, it’s making me think the culture being juxtaposed has to be external to the film. It’s that you’re watching it as a secular person, or maybe somebody on the post-Mormon spectrum. And when you are outside of that culture, then it is absurd.
GB: You know, when I was making this movie, I never thought it would play at a large festival. Then it did, and I thought, “Oh cool, this is going to reach Mormons, and maybe someone will watch this and think, ‘Oh, this is kind of crazy.’” I’m not there to necessarily get people out of the religion, but I am here to say, please examine yourself. I’m simply asking, maybe let’s step back and pay attention to the things that authorities in the church have told us to think. The church’s stances on masturbation and pornography are so extreme. But it completely goes over people’s heads. They just see it as reality. So it’s fascinating that I kind of failed in my own mission, because I wasn’t interested in making a didactic piece.
I love that quote you’re sharing. And the two cultures are definitely there. For an outsider, it’s seeing the inside of something contrasted with their own life experiences. These missionaries are eighteen, and this life is certainly a contrast to whatever the average eighteen-year-old is up to. I think this contrast you mentioned is heightened with the non-native Spanish as well.
EB: The Spanish made the artifice very present. Even if this movie was set in an English-speaking mission, for example, there would still be linguistic artifice because missionaries talk in a really forced churchy way. But the language barrier makes that artifice so much more immediate—everybody in this movie is going to speak stilted non-native Spanish, even though it’s hard for them and not a fluid way for them to talk.
I have another question in a different direction. One of the only parts where the movie seems to ask “Is the church true or not?” is the part in the bathroom when Elder Nibley brings up a historical inaccuracy in the Book of Mormon. It’s one of those moments where someone antagonistic shows up to say, “Ooh, how do you know what you think you know?”
GB: Yeah, it’s a test of his faith.
EB: And Elder Hyde says, that doesn’t matter to me, pretty flatly. And he reacts that way a bunch of other times to different people. He kind of walls off a lot, which is interesting to me.
GB: Yeah. He is definitely at a dissociative point in his life. But as far as that scene goes—you mentioned the varying leadership performances earlier, and this character, Elder Nibley—he’s off on the side, taking a shit during the group activity. He’s kind of a smart aleck and doesn’t play by the rules. I kind of want to punch him in the face. I wanted a moment where Elder Hyde had a chance outside of everything to say, “No, I do believe, and what matters is faith.” He’s kind of reconfirming his testimony. It is kind of the only time the movie touches on Mormon belief, which is, either you have to accept the absurdity of the many aspects of the religion or not.
EMILY BROWN is a Californian poet and songwriter. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, where she was poetry editor for literary journal 580 Split. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Dialogue, The Provo-Orem Word, and East French Press. Her newest album, A Fish of Earth, was released on Song Club Records in October 2020.
GREGORY BARNES is a filmmaker based in New York City and Los Angeles. Raised a faithful Mormon in Oak Park, IL, his films have been greatly influenced by the comedic absurdity of exiting that strange jello-obsessed-desert-religion. His most recent short, The Touch of the Master’s Hand won the Jury Prize for best U.S. fiction short at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Prior, his work has been featured in NPR, Playboy, and Pitchfork. While no longer a practicing Mormon, Barnes served a mission in Argentina and graduated with a BA in media studies from Brigham Young University. He is currently an MFA candidate in film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.