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Not everything I know about the logistics of Mormon missions comes from the musical The Book of Mormon — but enough of what I know comes from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s Broadway smash that throughout Tania Anderson’s documentary The Mission, I broke into “I Believe” on more than a few occasions.
It happens that The Book of Mormon is actually a good deal more specific about Mormon beliefs and practices than The Mission, which is either going to make you more or less interested in The Mission. The documentary is closer to Boys State with a faint whiff of religion (and fewer instantly compelling “characters”) than any sort of actual spiritual interrogation or personal exploration.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)
Director: Tania Anderson1 hour and 36 minutes
Anderson’s documentary focuses on four of the 60,000 young members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who embark each year to preach the LDS gospel around the world. The Church has never allowed a non-LDS film crew this kind of access to a group of young missionaries before and, not surprisingly, there are pros and cons to access.
Our four protagonists are Elder Pauole, Elder Davis, Sister Field and Sister Bills. On the mission, they’re not supposed to use their first names, so neither will I. We follow them through the initial training in Utah and then off to Finland, where they’ll spend the next two years.
Bits and pieces of The Mission are completely fascinating, whether it’s the insight into the language component of a mission — Finnish is tough — or the mission’s structure around a series of revolving “companions,” partners who one of our heroes explains are meant to prepare the youths for marriage. We see the frustration of their daily efforts to instigate religious conversations with the locals and, in the process, we learn an assortment of mission/Mormon-specific slang.
Anderson’s approach is somewhat vérité-style, without talking heads or title cards to guide us through, though there are explanatory voiceovers as a small cheat. I think it’s a style that works best if you have featured subjects who are interesting enough to let you into their personalities through their ordinary behaviors.
Here, getting to know the documentary’s main characters is slightly frustrating. Elder Davis is battling mental health issues, but what he’s going through is much more complicated than Anderson has the access or desire to show. Sister Field, endearingly nerdy, comes from a family with a range of reservations about the Church — but Sister Field knows to keep all of that vague. Elder Pauole and Sister Bills are both pleasantly likable and zealous, but their faith is unwavering.
At one point, Sister Bills and her companion are invited into a home by a couple who want to have an actual discussion about religion, but when the Finns raise several points of skepticism and offer various historical challenges to LDS dogma, Sister Bills just says it has taken her time to find her belief, but doesn’t go any further. Any time, in fact, the missionaries are challenged on any level, rather than letting the conversations get deeper, the documentary pulls back.
It isn’t just that The Mission doesn’t wallow in the wackier aspects of Mormonism. It barely gets into the core teachings. Toward the end, there’s talk of how missionaries are changed by this two-year experience, but other than watching their Finnish proficiency expand, I’m not sure the documentary gives any hints at how anybody is altered here. Like Boys State, The Mission presents itself as a story of idealistic kids facing tests in an experience that’s uniquely communal as well as lonely. But whether it’s the four specific missionaries chosen for the documentary or the limitations of even this level of access, no internal or external drama ever emerges.
I don’t know if Anderson is excessively respectful or if her subjects are intentionally or unintentionally putting up barriers, but other than Elder Davis in the last third of the documentary, nobody really opens up or appears to visibly grow or develop. I think it’s possible that COVID reduced Anderson’s opportunities for reflection after the mission as well. There’s a lot of self-filming in the last 20 minutes of the documentary and I doubt that was the original intent.
Then there’s the role played by the missionary location. Finns have a reputation for religious skepticism and a cultural reserve. With the locals amiably uninterested in what the kids are selling, I don’t think the missionaries got to learn much about the actual people of Finland, nor does the documentary. On the other hand, Anderson and DP Antti Savolainen capture moments of natural beauty and I appreciated how the changing of seasons (along with the changing of companions) gives the documentary some structure that it probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.
It all results in a documentary I found consistently interesting and never revelatory. I learned things, but given the opportunity allegedly presented to the production, not close to as much as I might have wanted to learn. Or maybe it truly is as simple as Book of Mormon put it: “A Mormon just believes.”
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)
Director & Writer: Tania Anderson
Producers: Isabella Karhu, Juho-Pekka Tanskanen
Editor: Suvi Solja
Cinematographer: Antti Savolainen
Composer: Mikko Joensuu
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