By Emma Gadeski and Decker Westenburg
During a cold Finland November in 2016, filmmaker Tania Anderson saw two men with white shirts and name tags as she pushed her infant son in a stroller.
Anderson recognized the men as missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As she passed by, she heard them deep in conversation about “temptation being everywhere,” revealing a more vulnerable side of Church missionaries and sparking an idea for a film.
“The Mission” is the first documentary created for public consumption by a film crew not affiliated with the Church to follow missionaries through the entire duration of their mission experience, including their preparation to leave and their return home to family and friends.
“It was hard, but totally worth it,” Anderson said. “It changed my life in more than one way.”
The film premieres at Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available on the festival’s website.
Gaining approval to create the film was a lengthy process that took about two years, involving hundreds of emails and a lot of persistence. Anderson first initiated conversations with Church authorities in Finland, then the local mission president and finally the Missionary Department at Church headquarters.
Anderson said Church officials were worried the film would be an investigative documentary to “unearth all the dark secrets and that sort of thing.” After meeting with Anderson, Finland Mission President Ilkka Aura realized the film was a coming-of-age story rather than one about the Church.
“Both of us were in tears by the end of this meeting,” Anderson said. “He understood that this is a film about love, about falling in love” with strangers, with a country and with one’s faith, she said.
The crew received permission to make a demo with missionaries who were already in the field and sent it off to Salt Lake— receiving a much-anticipated response of approval three months later.
It just so happened that Elder Brent H. Nielson, who served as the executive director of the Missionary Department from 2015-2020, had served a mission in Finland.
“That was super awesome,” Anderson said. “I think he has a soft spot for Finland.”
The missionaries featured in the film are Megan Bills, Tyler Davis, McKenna Field and Kai Pauole. The Church approached them with the film idea back in 2019.
“I was basically, I think, looking for people that felt very real to me,” Anderson said. “Real people that you can have a normal conversation with.”
The crew originally just wanted one protagonist, but ended up interviewing 12 missionaries from the group that was called to Finland in early 2019. They narrowed the group down to four based on their personalities and backgrounds. Anderson described the process as “organic” and said she felt the group was a good match with stories that complemented each other.
Anderson said her job as director was “kind of like a sculptor” — carving at a rock and discovering the form within it. She would have gone with whatever form the film took.
“This is the story that we ended up with,” she said.
Midway through filming, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe in early 2020 and left the cast uncertain about the future of the documentary as the Church was sending home thousands of missionaries.
“We got so lucky because the missionaries in Northern Europe stayed,” Anderson said. “But they were quarantined.”
When the pandemic started, Field remembers thinking she would be staying in Finland because of how hard Anderson had worked to get approval for the documentary.
“Heavenly Father wants this film to happen, and he’s going to make it happen,” Field said. “So I’m going to stay here; he’s going to give me the help that I need. And I’m going to trust in Him.”
When missionaries couldn’t approach people on the street or knock on doors, they turned to other strategies. Bills said one of her favorite parts of her mission was just meeting random people through Facebook and asking if they needed help with anything.
“Through that when we were just serving them, we didn’t even bring up the gospel; we would just get to know them,” she said. People would end up asking questions during those times. “So it just felt so natural.”
Before creating the film, Anderson said she knew a lot about the Church and did research on it, but she wasn’t as familiar with the service aspect — missionaries taking the time to just genuinely help another human being.
“That is incredible for me,” she said. “Like I would just make a film about that. Just because it’s an incredible thing to observe.”
As a Buddhist, Anderson said her practice is to pay attention and be present — something the missionaries in the film were doing. “It felt like we’re just doing the same things, but in a different form.”