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Former Latter-day Saint missionaries react to seeing themselves in Sundance documentary

‘Finland definitely changed our lives,’ one of the young people said of the experience shown in ‘The Mission.’

(Antti Savolainen | Sundance Institute) Elder Tyler Davis, a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is one of the subjects of a Finnish documentary, "The Mission," directed by Tania Anderson, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Being in the missionary field in Finland, telling strangers about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, isn’t easy, McKenna Field said — and doing it when there is a camera recording you is even harder.

“Finnish people don’t super like to talk to you anyway,” Field said. “But then you have a camera there, and it makes it, like, ‘oh, wow, I really don’t want to talk to you.’”

Field, a student at Utah State University, is one of four former Latter-day Saint missionaries who are subjects of “The Mission,” a documentary that premiered Monday at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film will stream again on Wednesday, available for a 24-hour window starting at 8 a.m. Mountain time.

The four young people took part in a Q&A session over Zoom on Monday afternoon, after seeing the completed film for the first time. Director Tania Anderson and three members of her film crew joined the Zoom call from Helsinki.

Kai Paoule, from Nephi, and Megan Bills, a student at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, both said they struggled a bit with the request to film themselves during the final months of their missions — when the COVID-19 pandemic put them into quarantine, and Anderson’s crew couldn’t reach them. Anderson provided them with selfie sticks.

“I was pretty inconsistent with my vlogging,” Bills said. “My first thought was, ‘This is so embarrassing.’ Granted, I was with just one person, my companion, because we were in quarantine. I just tried to have fun with it when I did do it, and it ended up being fun.”

“It was awkward angles, and not very good,” Paoule said, adding he was relieved when Anderson decided not to use any of the self-filmed footage in the final cut.

Paoule admitted that he hasn’t kept up on his Finnish since returning home seven months ago. “I have definitely forgotten a lot of stuff. Not many Finns out here you can speak with,” he said.

Viewers, sending questions in via a web chat, asked whether they could stream the song Bills wrote and performs during a quiet moment in the film. Bills said the only recording of her song is on a voice memo on her phone, but promised she would figure out some way to share it.

The most poignant responses to the film came from Tyler Davis, who lives in Syracuse. The movie shows Davis struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts while on his mission. After sessions with a therapist, and support from the mission president, Davis was sent home for medical reasons several months early.

“I’m incredibly touched about how difficult it is for me to watch it, to go back to a place where there a lot of emotions that you don’t really want to remember,” Davis said.

Davis said he was hit particularly hard by one moment in the film, where he said, “I’d rather physically die after the end of 7 1/2 months serving the people in Finland than live another 60 years.”

Since then, he said, “the coolest part for me is I’ve been able to be on a journey to find reasons to live another 60 years. That’s probably one of the most beautiful things about seeing the film for me — just sitting down and watching it for real — is seeing the personal growth that came out of myself, and seeing the love and the progress that I had.”

In a way, Davis said, being assigned to Finland may have kickstarted his healing. “It’s awesome to have gone to Finland, and to be part of a culture where you’re going to be completely isolated,” Davis said. “I feel like that helped me and my mental journey, to be able to learn how to love myself.”

Davis said he also was helped by the emotional directness of the Finnish people. “They don’t ask you how you are unless they really want to know,” he said, adding, “Finland definitely changed our lives, and, I think, all for the better.”

(Screenshot, via Sundance Institute) Four former missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — middle row, from left: Megan Bills, McKenna Field and Tyler Davis; bottom: Kai Paoule — talk about their experiences as subjects of the documentary "The Mission," which premiered Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. On the top row, from left: ASL translator Jo Welch, Sundance Institute moderator Ania Trzebiatowska, and the movie's crew: editor Suvi Solja, producer Isabella Karhu, director Tania Anderson, and cinematographer Antti Savolainen.

In a pre-taped introduction to the screening, director Tania Anderson said that Latter-day Saint missionaries are a familiar sight in many parts of the world. “We all know them. We all know what they look like,” she said. “I feel like perhaps none of us have really taken the time to get to know them.”

She became interested in making the film, she said, after she was walking in a Finnish town and “I heard English being spoken, which was wonderful.” (Anderson’s father is American, her mother English; she was born in Switzerland, grew up in France and now lives in Helsinki.)

The people speaking English were two young men serving their mission. “They were trying to stay warm, and trying to figure life out from their vantage point,” Anderson said. “Somehow I got to see normal young people, just trying to make sense of this whole thing.”

If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

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