There are more Mormons (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) living in tiny Nephi, Utah than there are in Finland. Kai, one of the missionaries profiled in Tania Anderson’s feature-length debut documentary The Mission (Danish Bear Productions) mentions that 1 in every 57 Finnish citizens is a Mormon. Ahead of his mission, he says that he believes he could shoot for the goal of 10%, confident that people will listen to and accept the gospel as he and his fellow missionaries have learned and are eager to share.
Anderson’s film, one of three from Finland in this year’s Sundance Film Festival (Girl Picture in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition and the horror film Hatching in the Midnight section being the other two) is a well-balanced, enlightening, realistic chronicle of four missionaries from Utah who have been assigned to Finland, a Nordic country with a secular culture where many Finns rarely discuss religion or spirituality in public. Anderson’s film is in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.
Anderson, a writer and journalist who has had her work published in various venues including National Geographic, achieved what few documentarians have been able to do previously — secure cooperation and approval from various LDS church officials including Salt Lake City media spokespersons representing the church, the mission president in Helsinki and the executive director of the Missionary Training Center in Provo.
“I was surprised by the leap of faith the church took in trusting me and trusting the project to proceed,” Anderson says from her home in Finland, in an interview with The Utah Review. Anderson recalls the day when she arrived at the Missionary Training Center for filming and was welcomed by the head of security who was tasked with chaperoning her and escorting her from the underground parking lot. “He said I don’t know what you said or did to get into this place but this does not happen too often,” she adds.
Anderson’s film is illuminating in significant ways. When many missionaries are on assignment, they have very limited contact with their families back home. There is plenty of footage from the Nordic nation that shows what a challenge it was for missionaries to make contact with Finnish citizens, along with rare moments of bringing a new member to the faith including a scene at the baptismal font. There are scenes about how they sustain the perseverance of their mission during the long dark, bleak days of a Finnish winter. Or, how they communicate in one of the world’s most complex languages to become fluent in without uttering unintentional slips in meaning.
One of the most sensitively told stories involves Tyler, who had anticipated his mission with confidence and the swagger of an athlete in his charismatic personality. For part of his mission, he was assigned to Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland where there is no daylight between November and January. Indeed, it can seem like a foreboding mission into the wilderness, especially for a young man whose entire life in a small Utah town has been defined spiritually, socially and culturally by the faith in which he and his peers believe and practice. Coping with depression, panic attacks and social anxiety, Tyler leaves his mission early and returns home to seek therapy.
Many missionaries have had similar experiences and have left their assignments earlier than scheduled and for various reasons. It is a subject that is treated more as taboo than as one for constructive discussion. Many young people are trained to believe in and to strive for ideals of perfection in their missionary service. Anderson is conscientious to a fault, allowing Tyler as well as his peers to feel as comfortable as possible with the cameras present without also feeling the need to be self-conscious about how they appear or how their expressed thoughts are presented. McKenna, one of the other missionaries featured in the film, is excited about her mission. Yet, she also accepts the fact that there are members of her family who are not as committed to being active in the church. She also loves and accepts a brother who is gay.
Anderson says the spark for doing the documentary came more than five years ago when she was taking her infant son outside briefly on a bleak November day. She recognized the familiar suit attire of Mormon missionaries who appeared to be in deep conversation and she heard one of them cautioning the other about temptation being present everywhere.
Over the next 18 months, she contacted church officials in Finland and Salt Lake City, including plenty of negotiations being exchanged via email. Anderson had one significant ally in her corner: Ilkka Aura, the first native Finn to head the Mormon mission in Helsinki. She assured church officials that it was not her attempt to present either an overly positive or negative story about the missionary experience but instead to focus on it as a coming-of-age journey.
Anderson originally hoped to base the film on one male missionary. During the ensuing months of negotiations, the number of protagonists expanded to four and Anderson was able to secure more days for filming. The church finally gave the green light for Anderson along with the access she needed for filming. With the intervening COVID-19 pandemic, Anderson occasionally worried that the church could pull the rug from the project, leaving her unable to complete it. From an initial pool of subjects for the film, Anderson selected four: Elder Tyler Davis, Sister McKenna Field, Elder Kaii Pauole and Sister Megan Bills.
Anderson made herself available whenever the missionaries wanted to talk. “Tyler enjoyed long conversations and became the most emotionally available and easiest person to talk to,” she says. He was excited at first, talking about the hopes of having someone invite him into their homes to help do their dishes or shovel snow. When he told Anderson that he was going back to Utah, she said that he apologized to her for letting her down. “I assured him that was not the case and I wished him well on doing whatever he needed to get better,” she adds.
She knows extensively how Finns keep to themselves and are rigorously protective of their independence. Ironically, in her opinion, this helped the missionaries become that much more resilient and develop thicker skins in handling the quick rejections which often were silent or included a gruff word or two. Many viewers might also be surprised to learn that missionary service is voluntary and their families are responsible for the expenses involved.
The film also features scenes from Provo, Nephi and Payson in Utah. Some of the production work was handled by Utah professionals including cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiménez, who worked on The Killing of Two Lovers, a Utah-made film directed by Robert Machoian that premiered at Sundance two years ago.
There have been numerous films about Mormonism at Sundance and many justifiably have criticized the church’s leadership, most notably on discrimination against those who identify as LGTBQ+ and on being out of touch with social progress on numerous fronts. Anderson’s film is illuminating, especially from the perspective of how one might see and react to the presence of missionaries on the streets—or to anyone that seems foreign or strange to us, be it a homeless person or an expensively dressed investor. If anything, to quote from Anderson’s artistic statement as director, “So in a sense, with this film, I’m hoping to reduce the automatic wariness we have of others. It doesn’t mean we have to convert or even agree; we just don’t need to fear. Because when we scratch the surface, we usually discover much more commonality than not.”