Tania Anderson’s documentary The Mission follows a group of young American Mormons as they embark on two years of missionary work in Finland.
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Watching Tania Anderson’s documentary The Mission, I was reminded of Boys State (2020), another Sundance doc that made me horrified at how certain conservative communities in America are shaping the minds of the younger generation. While Boys State concerned young Texan boys’ views and approaches to politics, The Mission concerns religion, specifically Mormonism. It’s about the worrying practice of sending eighteen-year-olds on a compulsory two years of missionary service to a foreign country, so they can spread the word of God, while being cut off from their friends and family almost entirely.
Anderson is incredibly empathetic toward her subjects; her observational style with no voiceover or expert talking heads means she doesn’t force an opinion on the viewer. However, she’s careful to include information that gives context for why sending young people on missionary work is harmful.The Mission is less concerned with why missionary work is bad for the communities these Mormons are visiting — although the few people they manage to convert are lonely and vulnerable, indicating why missionary work is inherently predatory.
The film’s primary concern is for the young people sent to do this work by their churches. Early on, Anderson hits us with the shocking fact that these trips, while they’re considered mandatory, must be financially covered entirely by the young person themself along with their family. I couldn’t help but think how, for some less wealthy families, this could be a choice between missionary work and college. Then, there’s the fact that these young people, barely adults, are leaving their support network for two years and going to Finland, where they have little grasp of the language. They’ll only be allowed to phone their friends and family once a week. Missionary work leaves them rootless. Yet most of them are enthusiastic about it, excited to do what they’ve been taught is essential work for God. “This is literally the most important work that is going on on Earth right now,” one of them exclaims.
Anderson encourages no ill will toward the young people she films, allowing them to speak passionately to the camera about their firm belief that what they are doing is good. The footage she chooses of her subjects showcases most of them as altruistic, kind-hearted people who are intent on helping others. Anderson’s implicit critique is all focused on the system they exist within, which teaches them misguided ways of directing their kindness. We witness the poor life lessons they are learning, such as “sometimes, true love involves cutting someone down,” which one missionary states after facing challenges.
There’s also an excruciating scene of a male missionary flirting with the hairdresser giving him a haircut, and making her uncomfortable. Contextualised within the rest of the film, we understand his poor social skills and lack of boundaries as learned from what’s required of missionaries: constantly interrupting strangers to push your beliefs onto them. Not to mention the retrograde teachings that, once their mission is over, these young men should find wives, and the young women should start making babies.
It’s unfortunate that Covid seemed to interrupt the shoot of The Mission, leaving the film feeling strangely incomplete, as it rushes to the finish line. What’s more confusing is that the film declines to acknowledge Covid — suddenly, months have passed and people are wearing masks. It feels like a missed opportunity in a film about people who are isolated from their support system to discuss how Covid might have exacerbated that. Still, Anderson’s film is rich and empathetic enough that it deserves a watch.
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