(Finland, 95 min.)
Dir. Tania Anderson
Programme: Word Cinema Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
One of the more surreal experiences when flying into Salt Lake City, Utah home to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, is to witness the homecoming of young people returning their months spent abroad. It’s a fundamental tenet of the Mormon faith for the young to help find converts, and in many nations throughout the world, these youth are sent on a kind of pilgrimage, often away from their families for the first time. At the airport, there are balloons and welcome signs, a real sense of return for those that have sacrificed to help strangers know about Joseph Smith and co.
It’s in this context that makes The Mission an ideal fit for Sundance. Part anthropological study, part reality show, Tania Anderson’s The Mission is a fascinating look at a bunch of clean-cut American teens who fly to Finland to spread the word of their religion.
What’s terrific about Anderson’s film is how it’s both probing and respectful. It creates as close to an objective observation of these young people as is possible without diminishing their sincerity or proselytising for their own beliefs. We see the struggles of learning a language as well as the insularity of these young Americans leaving the bubble of their culture. We see that behind the smiles and good cheer, there are true moments of doubt. And we see a tenacity driven in part by faith, but also by an inner conviction to help strengthen their own character as much as those with whom they interact.
Obviously, many problematic facets of this Church are absent here. Delicate conversations about the history of discrimination, racism, and anti-Semitism that served as a core foundation for the faith for decades are beyond the scope of what’s documented. Instead, The Mission lets us witness a journey that is far more personal with many of the distinct aspects that define this sect left unremarked upon save for the core missionary practice.
Viewers wanting either a light and fluffy look at a bunch of Mormon kids out of their element, or some definitive screed against a following that some consider more like a cult than a part of mainstream Christian practice, are sure to be disappointed. In the end, Anderson’s gift is to express the inherent humanity in much of what takes place, be it in the struggles of those coming to terms with being away and pestering those with what they believe to be true, or even for those whose own inner demons make it impossible to continue on their path.
As such, it’s the version question of what the mission is for those who go on The Mission: are they there to grow their church, or to grow themselves? Does that question inaccurately presume there’s much of a difference? It’s not as if being “forced” to learn Finnish, to leave the comfort of American suburbia, and to live a more regimented life approaches anything like a trial by fire. However, at least for the kids who are documented, it’s obvious that the result of these months away does wonders in giving plenty of time to consider the nature of their faith and their commitment to the cause.
On one hand, the film is a celebration of the journey these young people go on; on the other, it’s a clear-eyed recognition that despite the best of intentions, there’s still a horrifying implication that the very act of the mission itself amounts to religious colonialization. There’s a banality to their appreciation of Finish culture and tradition that’s appalling, and that the language is being learned not to communicate as much as to persuade. There’s a darkness to the conceit that’s obvious for those outside the church, but at the same time, it’s easy just to brush them all off as brainwashed and foolish.
The Mission therefore manages, quite astutely, not only to see the youths question their beliefs and prejudices, but also to encourage the audience to do the same. By providing such a seemingly innocuous tale in such an engaging and penetrating manner, Anderson’s fine debut speaks to many audiences. In so doing, the film highlights the very paradoxes and profound experiences felt and shared by these compelling characters.
The Mission premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.