Director Tania Anderson’s first feature length documentary The Mission follows the journey of four American missionaries as they venture to Finland to spread the word of Mormonism through the Church of Latter Day Saints. Anderson’s documentary examines the trials and challenges faced by these plucky teens, capturing the isolating mission, whilst giving us a glimpse into an intriguing little seen world.
Moving from the comfort of their US surroundings, The Mission chronicles the young Mormons in their studies of the Finnish language, the challenges of being on the streets sharing their faith, and the struggles of being away from their families, whilst capturing an insight into the nuts and bolts of the missionary experience. Through the perspective of each of the young Americans in Finland, The Mission succeeds in helping us get to know the young people behind the name badges and immaculate suits and dresses.
Beginning with Antti Savolainen’s striking cinematography, the camera floats through a lush green woodland as one of the young missionaries reads Mormon scripture from founder Joseph Smith. It’s an elegant ethereal introduction to this documentary which is boldly shot and immersive, capturing a sense of the contrast between traditional Nephi, Utah settings and the vast expanses of the Mormon’s new Finnish home.
Initially Anderson takes time to observe the young missionaries in their home environment, they share their ambitious aims – one boldly stating that he hopes to get the population of Finland up to 10% Mormon. Church services follow where we get a sense of their dedication and passion towards their religion on home soil, as well as family responses to their upcoming travels. Anderson manages to reveal several little insights including the fact that missionary work is self-funded by the traveller and their family. However, the focus of The Mission is not delving into the details and beliefs of Mormonism, but on the four human protagonists and the impact of their time in Finland.
The Mission is at its most interesting as it observes the American’s arrival in Finland. Initially greeted with open arms by leader of Church’s Finnish branch – the pragmatic people of Finland seem less taken in by their new American arrivals and their beliefs. With a language barrier thrown into the mix, we get a sense of the heavy challenge facing these missionaries – yet they largely remain undaunted by the experience. Anderson does delve into the sense of isolation faced by these missionaries, but this never really becomes too much of a focus, with our protagonists generally cheery and affable throughout their time in Finland. The challenges of their journey are apparent on one of the youths, Elder Davis, who shares his struggles with panic attacks and mental health troubles, which have been previously explored with a Mormon counsellor, Davis subsequently returns home early from his trip. Anderson does not pry too deeply into this, other than Davis briefly sharing these troubles himself.
The Mission’s observational stance is absorbing, but becomes truly interesting when glimpsing the encounters between the Mormons and Finnish citizens in more detail. A Finnish family welcoming two of the Mormons into their home and the engagement in some of expected discussion points and critiques of Mormonism is one of the film’s most interesting scenes. This leaves us hungry for more critical dialogue and discussion regarding the purpose of their missions. Similarly Elder Pauole’s visit to meet a group of Finnish students and being asked if he feels like he has missed out on a normal teenage life due to his faith, his answer is not shown. Exploring moments like these further would have helped The Mission dig a little deeper than the light observational approach that we receive.
The Mission plays as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. You can find out more details here.