Sundance film captures mental health challenges in missionary work

Elder Tyler Davis holds the Book of Mormon on the grounds of the Provo Missionary Training Center, as seen in “The Mission” directed by Tania Anderson. The documentary captures missionary life in a raw, personal way — sharing scenes of mental health challenges, cultural adjustments and evolving faith journeys. The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24. (Photo courtesy of Danish Bear Productions)

Second in a series. The first looks at how Finland-based director Tania Anderson created “The Mission.”

Sundance documentary “The Mission” captures missionary life in a raw, personal way — sharing scenes of mental health challenges, cultural adjustments and evolving faith journeys in Finland.

This 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. The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24.

Megan Bills, Tyler Davis, McKenna Field and Kai Pauole are the missionaries featured in the film. Once they arrived in Europe, they were faced with speaking to native Finns in a difficult language they were still learning. They encountered rejection and challenges to their belief systems.

Some missionaries enter the field thinking they’re going to be a robotic, “cookie cutter” missionary, Davis explained. But this doesn’t work in Finland.

“Finns hate fakeness,” he said.

When a Finnish person asks someone how they are, they genuinely want to know, Davis said. So when he was experiencing depression, he felt comfortable sharing that experience with others.

In the film, Davis said he started meeting with a therapist as his mental state began decreasing — experiencing panic attacks, depression and social anxiety. He was sent home after having a seizure but wanted to stay.

“I’d rather stay in Finland for the next seven months and like physically die in Finland serving people than go home and live another 60 years,” he says in the film.

Without mental illness and other challenges, Davis said Finland would’ve been “a piece of cake.” But he described his time in the field as a “transformation process.”

He said the reason he talks about mental illness and can love himself is because it was so difficult to do so.

“I love that the film is hard to watch. And I love that it’s hard for me to watch,” he said. “But it’s the most beautiful thing because of that.”

New and prospective missionaries don’t always realize how hard a mission actually is, Pauole said. It’s not all “sunshine and rainbows.”

“A lot of the times missionaries experience more of the hard times than the good times, but those good times far outweigh the hard times,” Pauole said. He thinks the film will help future missionaries better prepare for their time in the field because they’ll know what to expect.

Anderson never set out to make a film about mental illness and missionary work, but said the crew just rolled with the punches. She tried to keep in touch with all four missionaries as much as possible, and it just so happened that Davis felt safe enough with her to share how he was feeling.

The missionaries expressed appreciation for Anderson and the film crew, describing them as a “constant” during their missions and the filming process.

“I always thought to myself that I would have absolutely never, ever agreed to do it if Tania wasn’t so cool,” Bills said, emphasizing a “family feeling” between the crew and the missionaries.

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