The mission, a documentary premiering at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, represents the first time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly known as LDS or Mormon Church) has given a non-LDS film crew access to missionaries through the entirety of their mission. The church’s missionary program sends tens of thousands of teens and young adults around the world to proselytize and convert new members for two years. The mission follows four of these missionaries sent to Finland.
While the level of access may be unprecedented, it may not mean much. Most of what we learn about LDS missions and missionaries is not particularly telling to anyone familiar with the religion. Those unfamiliar might find the mission experience new or confusing. Members of the LDS Church will likely find a number of scenes in the documentary uplifting and affirming of their faith (or nostalgic if they, too, have served a mission). That said, the separate messages taken by each of these groups could be better disseminated if they were sought elsewhere.
The focus of the documentary aligns most closely with the perspective of those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the faith and its culture. The impetus for the documentary, as described by the director, began with a “chance encounter” with two missionaries on a cold night in Finland in 2016. Director Tania Anderson says, “I ran into two young English-speaking men. I immediately recognized their costumes and wanted to move on before they saw me,” is how many of the Finns in the documentary reacted to seeing missionaries proselytizing on the streets. Anderson found herself eavesdropping on their conversation about ‘the temptation to be everywhere.’ She says, ‘For the first time I could see beyond the attire that so officially differentiates them from other teenagers and clearly delineates them as representatives of their church. And in that moment, I took a look at two unique 18-year-olds with high hopes and deep fears, trying to protect themselves from the cold and the mundane everyday.
the Sundance Documentary Inspired by Encounter keeps that focus – featuring the experiences of teenagers, who believe they are called by God to serve away from home, without commentary. The result is a kind of coming-of-age story about the four missionaries at the heart of the documentary: Brother Tyler Davis, Sister McKenna Field, Brother Kaii Pauole, and Sister Megan Bills. Alone for the first time in their lives, in a foreign country, with a tenuous mastery of the language, a divine mandate and expectations far from reality, we see the four of them forced to develop, to learn more about themselves and become more grounded in their faith.
As they say goodbye to their families and meet their first companions in the field, the missionaries’ inexperience, naivety and unrealistic expectations are on full display, which could inspire sympathetic anxiety in adult audiences. Elder Tyler Davis has never ironed his own shirts before. Sister Field takes at face value the promise of church leaders of spiritual blessings for going on a mission. She believes these blessings will inspire her family members to return to practicing the Mormon faith, which they disavowed. Sister Bills doesn’t know how she’ll live for two years without rocking out in the car with her sister to their favorite music (the church requires missionaries to avoid entertainment or other activities common to this age group as long as they are on their missions, so they can fully concentrate on the work of serving and teaching others the LDS gospel.) For his reason for going on a mission, Brother Kaii Pauole cites the church edict that “every able young man should serve a mission”, attributing it to scripture, though he does not know which scripture it comes from. This could be because it is actually taken from discussions of former LDS church presidents. Thomas S. Monson, LDS President said, “Every worthy and able young man should prepare to serve a mission. Missionary service is a priesthood duty, an obligation the Lord expects of us who have been given so much. Young men, I urge you to prepare for missionary service. (Young women are not bound by faith to serve missions, but may choose to do so regardless.)
The documentary succeeds in showing the naïve, vulnerable and, at times, frightened teenager behind the telltale LDS missionary name tag. They are only children, after all, and they arrive in Finland breathless with only their faith at the end of the day. Perhaps inadvertently, the documentary also exposes an issue where the church’s new messages and guidelines are at odds with its deeply rooted culture.
Brother Davis reveals to one of his companions his mental illness. He explains that his depression, anxiety and “bipolarity” have become increasingly difficult to manage the longer he remains on the mission. He expresses particular anxiety about “transfer calls,” when a missionary must move to a new area and work with a new companion every few months or so. He says he’s had sessions with a “mission therapist,” which appears to be the same advice offered to church members by LDS Family Services (a denominational counseling arm of the church that leaks notes on the patient to their church leaders). Still, Davis’ health continued to deteriorate until he suffered some sort of seizure. With seven months left to serve, Davis’ mission president sends him home early.
While the church has tried to soften its messages about missionaries who don’t complete their missions, Elder Davis’ reaction to the news shows that messages from the culture and from church members have some catching up to do. “I would rather stay here another seven months and die serving the Finnish people than go home early and live another 60 years,” he told his companion. His mission president assures Davis that God wants him to be healthy and whole and loves him no less, but that message must combat a lifetime of pressure and expectation from the church and family to serve a full-time mission. Months later, when we see Elder Davis at the homecoming parties of his fellow missionaries, he still seems discouraged. “You’re really quiet now,” Paule tells Davis.
Because documentary filmmakers don’t offer commentary on the experiences of missionaries, audiences should reflect on a question posed by a Finnish high school student to Brother Paule: “Do you feel like your teenage life is limited?
The mission created on the fifth day of Sundance Film Festival 2022 and, at last check, has not been acquired for distribution.
ON THE MISSION DIRECTOR TANIA ANDERSON
Director and screenwriter Tania Anderson is an emerging British, American and Swiss filmmaker, based in Helsinki, Finland. She has also worked as a writer and journalist with over 10 years of media experience, most recently as a writer for National Geographic, where she discovered her passion for telling the extraordinary stories of ordinary people. A conversation she accidentally overheard between two young missionaries in dark, wintery Finland sparked the idea for The Mission, which is also her first feature-length documentary.
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