Just a few days before Thanksgiving in 1988, Gordon Church, a gay Southern Utah State College student, was kidnapped, raped and murdered miles outside of Cedar City.
His assailants Lance Wood and Michael Archuleta, who had recently been released from prison, took Church up Cedar Canyon, threw him in the trunk of their car, and killed him off of the Dog Valley exit, presumably because of his sexuality. Church’s murder is now what would be referred to as a hate crime.
When one of the film’ producers Chad Anderson pitched Church’s story to Avalanche Studios, the company’s president Dave Lindsay was quick to hop on the project. Based out of Sandy, Utah, the production company normally creates ads and other video production for business-related organizations. However, after learning about Church’s tragic death, telling his story became the studio’s “passion project.”
The feature length documentary “Dog Valley” not only delves into Church’s life and death, but comments on being gay in rural Utah, the death penalty, and receiving justice for violent crimes. Lindsay, who is also the film’s director, believes these themes to be relevant still, especially to southern Utah residents.
“Dog Valley is a Cedar City story…and it brought up a lot of issues that I think are still relevant today, even though this happened thirty some odd years ago,” Lindsay said.
The film took three years to produce and was shot on location in Cedar City for dramatic recreations. It includes interviews from those who knew Church, as well as the family of one of the murderers Michael Archuleta.
Lindsay and his team were unable to interview the Church family as they declined to be a part of the film. However, for Lindsay, some of the interviews with the Archuleta family are the most touching moments of the documentary.
“I think one of the favorite parts of the film for me was when Archuleta’s sister was talking about the unconditional love that her mom had for her son, who is a murderer — a convicted murderer of a violent, violent crime, and yet she still loved him… I think this message of love is an important thing that we hope will resonate with people,” Lindsay said.
While Lindsay hopes the film’s messages will influence all viewers, one of the documentary’s producers Jason Conforto has a more personal connection with the story.
Conforto’s son is a current Southern Utah University student who two years into the making of “Dog Valley” came out as gay. Like most freshmen, Conforto’s son’s journey began at the Founder’s Hall student housing — mere blocks away from where Church was initially kidnapped in 1988.
“I realized that Gordon who was murdered…for being gay, lived in a very different world than what my son was about to experience at SUU, and I’m grateful for the change that we see in our society…but it made it a lot more personal for me to know that this is where my son was going to attend college, and actually not knowing for sure how safe he would be in this environment,” Conforto said. “For a father, that was difficult to leave him down there.”
The film’s creators hope that “Dog Valley” will speak to southern Utah natives and SUU students specifically. For those interested in seeing the film, the documentary has been selected to play at the 14th annual Red Rock Film Festival in Cedar City on Nov. 4 and Nov. 7, with screenings open to the public.
According to Lindsay, the Red Rock Film Festival was a “natural fit” for the documentary. Although the film was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic, distribution of it has been made difficult because of social distance guidelines. Nearly all other festivals over the summer have been virtual.
“We’re really grateful for festivals like the Red Rock Film Festival and others that are willing to actually show this in person and have audiences there. This is a film that we made so people can see it, “ Lindsay said.
The festival will take place at different locations in Cedar City during Nov. 4-7 and will premiere dozens of both short and feature-length films made by local filmmakers. To purchase tickets and passes for the festival, visit their website.
“Dog Valley” has been selected to play at six other festivals and has won three awards, including Outstanding Achievement and Best Documentary twice. Both Lindsay and Conforto will be at the Red Rock Film Festival in person and available for a Q&A panel after the film’s showings.
“I hope that this film…encourages people to really analyze how they treat marginalized groups and have the strength to stand up for those who are being persecuted against or anything like that,” Conforto said. “So I hope that this film does good, and I hope it does good for the LGBTQ+ community, and that it continues to make this world a better place for people like my son.”
For more information about “Dog Valley” or the creators of the film, visit its website.
Story by Amanda Walton
Photo courtesy of Avalanche Studios