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Tania Anderson’s friends, she said, weren’t sure why she wanted to make a documentary about missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“My friends ask me, like, ‘What is this? You’re a Zen Buddhist and you’re doing this project on the LDS Church?’” Anderson said recently over a video link from Helsinki, Finland. “It’s like my practice form — of meeting people on equal ground. It’s kind of like an exercise in Zen Buddhism, in a way.”
Anderson’s film, “The Mission,” follows four American teens — three of them from Utah — as they serve their missions in Finland for Myöhempien Aikojen Pyhien Jeesuksen Kristuksen Kirkko (that’s the church’s name in Finnish).
The film premieres Monday, Jan. 24, at 2 p.m. Mountain time, in the World Cinema Documentary competition of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. People can start streaming the film on Sundance’s portal, festival.sundance.org, between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Monday; a second screening window is set for Wednesday, Jan. 26, for 24 hours starting at 8 a.m. Mountain time.
Anderson was born in Switzerland to an American father and English mother, and grew up in a nonreligious home in France. She had some knowledge of the Latter-day Saint faith, from distant cousins in Nevada and Utah who were members of the church. And she had her own preconceptions about missionaries before she started working on her film.
“I had this understanding that I knew what they had to say, and I knew that I didn’t want to hear it,” Anderson said.
While making the film, Anderson said, she shed those preconceptions. “Of course, they’re normal kids,” she said. “These are just regular people.”
Anderson’s film follows four missionaries through their two-year terms of service, as they are presenting their testimony, giving out copies of the Book of Mormon (or Mormonin Kirja, in Finnish) and performing service projects. It took Anderson another two years before filming to get permission, starting with the church’s representatives in Finland.
“We were back and forth for a really long time,” Anderson said. One official, she said, “sent me the link to a video, of the type of documentary he thought I was interested in making — and that [they] do not want any involvement of this type of documentary. He thought it was going to be a lot more investigative, … this sort of critical angle.”
Ultimately, Anderson got a meeting with the mission president in Finland — the first president of the mission there who was actually from Finland. “We just hit it off immediately,” Anderson said. “We both had tears in our eyes by the end of the meeting. He understood this was not a documentary about the church, but this is a documentary about the inner journey of these young people.”
The mission president in Finland forwarded Anderson’s request up the chain to Salt Lake City, the church’s global headquarters. Anderson credits one person in the church’s communications office, now a reporter at a Salt Lake City TV station, for helping overcome bureaucratic obstacles.
She also said it likely helped that the missionary department’s executive director at the time, Brent H. Nielson, as a young man served his mission in Finland. “I think he had a soft spot for Finland, and we just got super lucky,” Anderson said.
Still, by the end of 2018, Anderson was sure the church would say no to the whole thing. “Then, in early January 2019, we just got this total green light,” she said.
There were 13 teens set to serve their missions in Finland in 2019, and all of them said they were interested in taking part in Anderson’s documentary. She interviewed them via video chat, looking for people who would make for compelling narratives. “I was looking for emotional openness,” she said. “It’s the ability to express themselves.”
Out of the 13 missionaries, three were elders and 10 were sisters. “I was really looking for elders, and the church actually was kind of nudging me to pick sisters,” Anderson said. “I was mostly interested in the elders because there’s something totally iconic about elders — you know, it’s the suits and everything. And I was really interested in getting behind the suit.”
In the end, she filmed six subjects, and during editing concentrated on four: Elders Kai Pauole of Nephi and Tyler Davis of Syracuse, and Sisters McKenna Field of St. George and Megan Bills, who lived in Idaho when filming started. (Bills is now a student at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, Anderson said.)
“We had a super-confident, sporty type versus a shyer, underdog character, among the elders,” Anderson said. “I think the elders are expected to grow up really fast, and they’re given lots of responsibility. … With the sisters, it was a bit trickier, because they’re already so mature and so well-spoken. The amount of growth is perhaps a little less [than] with the elders. But McKenna and Megan were both awesome people to talk to.”
As the movie continues, the real world intrudes on missionary life. In the final months, the young people are seen wearing masks, a sign that the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning.
“We got lucky, in the sense that most of the missionaries were called home during that time, except for those based in northern Europe,” Anderson said. “So we got lucky that we could continue filming, but they were quarantined for three months.”
After some brainstorming, she said, “we ended up asking them to film themselves with their phones. We sent them selfie sticks and they filmed themselves. … We got the elders cleaning their apartment, but in their suits, and it was just such precious material.”
Anderson said she’s disappointed that plans to screen “The Mission” in Park City were scuttled, when the festival canceled in-person events in Utah because of the pandemic.
“The plan was to sit with all four of them, with their families, hold hands and cry,” she said. “I was really excited for them to kind of own this project, in front of their community, in front of their friends.”
(The four subjects will see the film for the first time on Monday, a publicist said.)
When “The Mission” screens, at Sundance or beyond, Anderson said, she hopes that “people feel what it’s like to be a [Latter-day Saint] missionary, and be in their shoes just for a few moments. My hope is that when we see them, we say, ‘Oh, yeah, that guy’s just a regular dude, and he’s got the same sort of things going on [as me],’ then maybe there’s just a little less fear, a little less apprehension. It’s my peace project — my contribution towards a little bit more peace in this world.”