We’ve all been there. You’re sitting at home, minding your own business, when all of a sudden, two impossibly polite teenagers turn up on your doorstep in matching white dress shirts and name badges wanting to talk to you about the time that ancient Israelites traveled all the way to Jackson County, Missouri. This is the Mormon missionary program, where young, impressionable members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are called to serve around the world for periods of two years. The Mission, directed by Tania Anderson, follows a group of fresh-faced, passionate teens as they embark on their mission trips to Finland. Although sending a bunch of extremely sheltered children to convert famously secular Scandinavians feels like a joke, Anderson treats her subjects with respect and empathy. Even while she critically examines the missionary system, her sympathy is clearly with the young recruits, making The Mission a clear-eyed and thought-provoking documentary about faith and how it is manipulated.
The Mormon missionary system is an age-old tradition – many of the film’s subjects have parents and grandparents who went on missions. For fervent Mormons, it signifies entry into the Church as an adult more than anything else could. Still, they face the prospect with mixed emotions. Some are excited, confident in their ability to win souls (one boy sets a goal of converting 10% of Finland’s population, which … seems high). But others have anxieties. They worry about their ability to learn Finnish, a language that seems incomprehensible to them. They’re scared of having to confront people wherever they go, unsure of whether their efforts to proselytize will be taken kindly (The Finnish, by the way, are shown to great advantage here – they are overwhelmingly polite but firm in their rejection of the Mormon ideology being pushed on them, and a few even engage with the missionaries, somehow able to make it clear that they think the religion is ridiculous without being unkind). They’re terrified of leaving home for the first time, being separated from their families for two long years, and dropped into an unfamiliar environment.
These all seem like perfectly natural fears. However, what we learn in The Mission is that they are not a side effect of this program: That the Mormon youth are terrified is the entire point of mission work. They’re sent abroad, away from their families, in the hopes of converting people, sure. But no one really expects them to be all that successful – how could they be? They’re a bunch of inexperienced kids who can barely speak the language. The actual purpose of the mission trip is to further indoctrinate Mormon youth into the Church by putting them in a stressful, lonely environment and isolating them with only fellow believers and prayer for company.
The list of rules they are given is endlessly restrictive, including a cruel dictate that they are not to speak to their families more than once a week. They are not permitted to be apart from their mission partner except while sleeping or in the bathroom, and it’s clear that these pairings are set up so that they can snitch on each other if they’re not following the rules. But at the same time, they’re moved around every eight weeks, presumably so that they can’t form strong bonds and get too comfortable in their situation. As depicted in this documentary, the Mormon mission seems designed to strip away everything about an individual except for their identity as a Mormon until they cling to their faith for sheer survival – they have nothing else. When we see one of the Sisters instructed to remove her name tag after two years of mission work, her fingers tremble, and she can barely bring herself to do so. What is she now if she isn’t a missionary anymore?
The Mission is nothing if not empathetic to the young people whose lives it documents. Rather than making them the punchline of a thousand easy jokes we’ve all heard before, it listens to their worries and anxieties and does not judge. It allows them the opportunity to express their trauma and their overwhelming sadness, even if they almost immediately handwave it away, redoubling their efforts to commit to the church as though that will heal their emotional wounds. More than anything else, The Mission captures a powerful sense of the vast toll that these expeditions take on vulnerable young people and the lengths that a church will go to in securing its future.