“LDS Folk Are the Same Whether They’re North Americans or Finns”: Tania Anderson on Her Sundance-Debuting Doc The Mission
World premiering January 24th in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance, The Mission marks the feature-length doc debut of Helsinki-based writer and journalist Tania Anderson, who, on a cold winter day back in 2016, happened to pass by a pair of English-speaking young men in familiar suits discussing the perils of temptation. Which prompted the open-minded British-Swiss-American to wonder not, “What the heck are Mormon missionaries doing in Finland?” (my first question), but “What makes them tick?” And from this combination of curiosity and accidental eavesdropping the idea for The Mission was born.
To find out more about the film, which follows four American LDS teens from home, to the Church’s Provo, Utah training center, to a staunchly secular nation half a world away – and also how exactly the non-LDS director and her crew managed to gain such unprecedented access – Filmmaker reached out to Anderson a week before the doc’s online festival launch.
Filmmaker: I read that your team was the first non-LDS film crew to be granted access to Church missionaries. So how exactly did you manage that? And why did leadership even think it was in their interest to allow you into this world? Were they hoping to convert you?
Anderson: To be accurate, we’re the first non-LDS film crew who got to film Church missionaries’ full mission. I was just as surprised as anybody else. It was hard to believe this film hadn’t been made before!
How did I manage it? It took awhile – about two years to get access to the Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City. We first had to go through the Finnish media representative for the Church in Finland. I think they were pretty guarded initially to meet with me and my two local producers from Danish Bear Productions, Juho-Pekka (Tanskanen) and Isabella (Karhu). So it took a lot of emails – and patience.
But after several months of convincing the local Church of Jesus Christ officials that our plan for the documentary was not an investigative project about the Church, but rather a coming-of-age story about the young people themselves serving as missionaries, we were granted a face to face meeting. That’s where we convinced them, at least enough to allow us to “borrow” a couple of missionaries for a day of filming. With that material we made a demo for the Church’s headquarters, to give them an idea of the style and mood that we had in mind. We were over the moon! Actually, many of the early stages of making this film were like that – for every 50 or 100 steps we took, one would allow us to keep moving forward. I honestly rejoiced over every single one of those steps, even if the outcome was totally unknown. It was like, “Yes, there was a flicker. This project is still alive!” And on we went.
And the last part of this answer is luck. After two or three months of near silence from the Church’s HQ after receiving our demo, we got an email confirming that the project had been green-lit by the executive director of the Missionary Department – the guy who’s in charge of all the missionary programs in the world. At the time it was Brent H. Nielson, who we later learned had served his own mission in Finland in the 1970s. So he likely had a soft spot for Finland. That’s how I was able to reach out to the next bunch of missionaries heading to Finland pretty soon after they got their “call letters” informing them of where they were headed.
As to why the leadership thought that this would be a good idea? I honestly don’t know. It’s possible that the Church shares the view that depicting vulnerability is a powerful means towards creating connection between people. It seems that up until now the Church has preferred to depict missionaries as perfect, or at least as enthusiastic and positive, as strong examples of what the LDS Church is all about. Perhaps when they decided to help us gain access to those missionaries so early on they saw something good or “useful” about sharing the vulnerability – the “humanity” of these regular teens. But I don’t know for sure. What I felt at the time, and still do, is that it was a true leap of faith on the Church’s behalf to trust a total “nobody,” both professionally speaking (this is my first film ever – I didn’t even go to film school so I didn’t have anything to show for myself) and in terms of affiliation with the Church. A huge leap of faith. I am, and will always be, very grateful for that act of trust.
And no, I don’t think they were hoping to convert me. Ha. Everyone, from the kids to the leadership, were all incredibly respectful of that boundary during the entire process. For sure there were hints here and there I would say. But not once did anyone overtly “invite” me or any members of the film crew to the Church. Generally speaking there was a clear silent agreement of “You do you and I do me.” Which made everything run really smoothly.
Filmmaker: What rules or boundaries did the Church and/or your characters set for filming? What was off-limits to the camera?
Anderson: I didn’t know this at first, but one of the things you absolutely can’t film – even if you’re a Church member wanting to record the event with a smartphone – is what they call “ordinances.” Ordinances include baptisms, confirmations, marriage sealings, any temple endowments, and for missionaries, specifically, their “setting apart.” Basically, much that would be considered “ritual.” And that was hard for me especially. My background is in anthropology, and I love observing the meaning-creation and intimacy that comes about with rituals. So yeah, we had to work around it. We filmed right up until those moments, put the camera down for five to ten seconds, then picked right up from where we left off.
That and “messy” apartments. Since our aim was to film missionaries “behind closed doors,” I had to stress the importance of being able to include the odd shoot in the missionaries’ apartments. But, as we did throughout the filming, we trod with respect. Especially in their private quarters, where we avoided filming any “magic underwear” hung up to dry, or anything like that.
Regarding the missionaries themselves, they always had the right to stop the filming. I made that clear to them, on every shoot. And on a couple of occasions, once enough trust was established, they did just that. So we stopped and picked up a few minutes later.
Filmmaker: What was the casting process like? How did you ultimately choose the four characters you focused on?
Anderson: With exception to one or two of the sisters, I got to interview all the missionaries from that particular group heading over to Finland in June 2019. For some reason my expectations of finding “the” character or two was pretty low. But I was nicely surprised. I fell in love with all of them. Such cool individuals.
One of the main factors in choosing these four was emotional availability and awareness, which would allow them to potentially talk about more difficult times as and when they would likely occur on their mission. That and their backstories/family situation – how those stories paired up with one another. And then when we finally got to the States to start filming, as they were preparing to leave for the Missionary Training Center, we got to check out who works best on camera. We filmed six on that first trip and settled on our four shortly after. Some people just kinda shine a little more brightly onscreen. That’s something you can only find out when you start filming.
Filmmaker: For me the biggest revelation (no pun intended) was that the mission is as much about solidifying the faith of the missionary as it is about converting nonbelievers; to “succeed” as much about soldiering on in the face of rejection as it is about gaining converts. In this sense missionary work can almost be viewed as a resiliency-building exercise, a means to teach certain secular skills. (Something one missionary even alludes to when he describes the assigned companion dynamic as practice for navigating the future spousal relationship.) Was this a discovery for you as well? Were there other aspects you found particularly surprising?
Anderson: Short answer is yes. The fact that part of the mission’s aim is for the missionaries to “convert themselves” was a discovery for me as well. Although it does make a lot of sense. One would naturally solidify one’s belief in anything if one would spend two years without any distractions – no social media, no surfing the net, no entertainment or hobbies – from morning to night focused on that belief. The missionaries indeed follow a very regimented schedule, some hours of which is spent studying the Book of Mormon, Holy Scriptures and the Bible on a daily basis.
From what I understand, the missionaries themselves are also very much aware of this “self conversion” process. And with this mindset every experience can become a test of faith. In that sense, getting a door slammed in one’s face becomes just as valuable as having someone smile at you, or having a long conversation with someone about Christ. All they have to worry about, so to speak, is making sure they do everything with a full and honest heart. And, as they say, “God will do the rest.” It’s the perfect storm, one could say.
I was definitely surprised by a few things along the way. One is that LDS folk are the same whether they’re North Americans or Finns. Ha. Generally speaking, I’d say Finns and North Americans couldn’t be more different in terms of their disposition to life and interaction with others. But, it turns out, LDS people have their own distinct culture. They’re all so freakin’ nice and wholesome – and I mean this in the most loving of ways! Yeah, this distinct culture they have is pretty fascinating.
Filmmaker: Did you share footage with the participants and leadership throughout production? Any disagreements over the final cut?
Anderson: We didn’t need to show them a rough cut and they never asked us for it. From the start they understood that this is an independent artistic project.
We did however share the first demos that we were making for financing forums also with Church leadership – as a kind of status report, to show that we were making progress. We never heard any complaints. When we first started filming in Finland we had a Church official fly over from Salt Lake to kind of chaperone the first days of filming, to check out the crew’s filming approach with the missionaries. After the second or third day, the official said something like, “You got this!” and made his way to the airport.
From our first contact we established a transparent relationship with the Church. I was very clear on what I wanted to film and how I was hoping to achieve that. At the same time, I made it clear that I wasn’t familiar with the Church’s rules, or the reasoning behind them, and that I was open to their advice and guidance on certain matters. Basically, when I didn’t understand something I asked the Church official I was in touch with. For example, “Why is it not OK to film in the apartments?” And once I understood what the Church’s concerns were specifically, we were able to work around them while still managing to film in all the locations we needed to.
Another example was around filming baptisms. The first time we had the opportunity to film a baptism we only had a couple of hours notice. So we just ran there and started shooting – which caused some upset amongst the members and the relatives of the person getting baptized. Although we never shied away from filming conflict the main goal was getting to film a baptism – a highlight for the missionaries – and so I turned to the Church for advice on how best to approach the next baptism, should another one come up for our protagonists. So in that sense, there was a clear line of communication between the production team and the Church, right from the start.