I know you’ve seen them. They’re not hard to miss. Two sharply dressed Latter Day Saint missionaries walking or biking through your neighborhood and ringing doorbells. I’ve certainly had my fair share of LDS visits, along with a box of unread copies of the Book of Mormon. But what exactly is going on? Who are these missionaries? For the first time ever, non-LDS cameras were allowed to follow several LDS young adults and teens in Tania Anderson’s documentary, The Mission.
Each year, over 60,000 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint youths are sent around the world as sort of a rite of passage preaching the message of the Mormon church. The documentary follows the exploits of LDS teens Elder Tyler Davis, Sister McKenna Field, Elder Kaii Pauole, and Sister Megan Bills as they are sent on their mission in Helsinki, Finland. Anderson spans their entire two-year mission starting with training in Utah, going into their arrival in Finland, and finally, their graduation to adulthood. Shot in a pseudo-Cinéma vérité style, the camera follows the teens while allowing an opportunity for voice-over commentary to explain the beliefs and values of the Mormon religion.
The missionaries start each day with personal study and meditation. Then they receive words of encouragement from the church leaders. Finally, they hit the streets, hoping to spark a conversation with anyone. They’ll ask direct questions to total strangers passing by or move indirectly through free giveaways of snacks. Each day they are met with one rejection after the other. Finally, persistence pays off as a swell of joy and peace comes over them with a single conversation with someone willing to stop, listen, and engage.
The most educational part of The Mission is seeing how the program is set up and administered. Missionaries are paired with someone of the same sex and spend nine weeks together, separated only during moments of personal hygiene. It’s alluded that this is almost marriage training. After nine weeks, they switch partners and start the getting-to-know-you process all over. The pair train together and share their experiences with their other partners.
“…sent around the world as sort of a rite of passage preaching the message of the Mormon church.”
The filmmaker strikes gold when a Finnish family allows the camera to enter their home. Anderson records their conversation with Sister McKenna and Sister Megan. As the two young women describe Joseph Smith and his exploits in Israel and the Americas, you can see the deep skepticism in the family’s patriarch.
Let’s be real. The Mission is a straightforward documentary about the life of a Mormon missionary. Nothing controversial happens. It’s a day-in-the-life story. Though Anderson never attempts to proselytize audiences into the LDS religion, there are more than enough opportunities to hear their message. The film does show a wart or two during a conversation with some ex-gay Mormons, but the church comes off in a good light at the end. For the most part, there’s no attempt to dig into the deep dark recesses of the church and drag up an indictment.
It’s essential to understand who the audience for this is. The film premiered at Sundance last year. I suppose it was because it’s in Utah. Not being Mormon myself, I guess LDS church members won’t find anything objectionable in the documentary. Most may find kinship with the featured teens. The other audience is the curious. Seeing missionaries roaming my neighborhood monthly piqued my curiosity about seeing this, but not much more than that.
For fans of documentaries, you’ll find Tania Anderson’s The Mission purely informational. This makes the 95-minute runtime feel long, especially for those not fond of religion. It’s also devoid of controversy or deep-seated human drama. But what you do get is a profile of young people who love their church and want to change the world for the better.
The Mission premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. For screening information, visit the Film Movement website.
"…for the first time ever, non-LDS cameras were allowed to follow several LDS young adults..."