Directed by: Tania Anderson
Distributed by: TBA
Written by Patrick Hao
It’s only a natural fit for the Sundance Film Festival, whose home base is in Park City, Utah, to host the premiere of “The Mission,” a documentary that follows four young adults as they begin their mission to spread the message of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The church, which is headquartered in Utah, sends 60,000 of its members out to various parts of the globe each year to pass around the Book of Mormon. For many outside the religion, the church is probably best known as the subject of many barbs from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, so it is interesting to see what access an outsider like director Tania Anderson might be given.
The film follows four young Mormons, Elder Davis, Elder Pauole, Sister Field, and Sister Bills, as they leave to do their mission in Finland. They are teenagers, clean-cut and impeccably dressed, but never once does the viewer forget that they are barely adults. Anderson documents them going through their training at the Missionary Training Center before they are taken to Finland. There are rules for them in foreign countries. They must be with their companion, which is rotated every nine weeks. The companions must never leave each other’s sights. And they must keep all contact with friends and family to once a week.
Anderson never outright interrogates the church or her subjects with her film. She never even delves too deeply into what the Church’s beliefs are beyond the superficial aspects. Rather, this is a rather empathetic look at young adults taken out of their comfort zone for a higher cause. We observe them go through the struggles of loneliness and purpose. They are told to always exhibit good manners and a smile, but of course, are berated by passers-by who don’t want to be bothered by Americans. One even suffered depression and panic attacks.
Yet, there is something missing from a film that does not want to interrogate the central being of its subject. Even setting the film in Finland presents an interesting conundrum for the film (it should be noted that the production company and filmmakers are Scandinavian). While they are in a foreign country, the missionaries are essentially trying to convert a predominantly white, Christian country. There is no power imbalance or White Savior complex if this film followed missionaries going to Africa or Latin America, for example.
That is because this is not a film about whether the mission of the Church is righteous or not. Anderson’s sightlines are strictly with her subjects and their beings. In that way, the film is reminiscent of the Maysles Brothers’ “Salesman.” That too were about missionaries of sorts – bible salesman in the 1960s and the hardships of going door to door to sell a call-to-action.
That film may have packed more of a punch in its explicit tackling of capitalism and innovative direct cinema style. Anderson’s film is lighter in its approach. But “The Mission” is an interesting earnest glance at a subject that has much more meat to be explored.