For the first time in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a documentary team not connected with the Church was given permission to film four young missionaries serving in the Helsinki Finland Mission. The four missionaries who were chosen to be featured in the film were Elders Kai Pauole of Nephi, Utah, and Tyler Davis of Syracuse, Utah, and Sisters McKenna Field of St. George, Utah, and Megan Bills, who lived in Idaho when filming started. Bills is currently a student at Brigham Young University-Hawaii.
As a result, a 95-minute documentary titled The Mission was created. The film premiered online at the Sundance Film Festival on 24 January 2022.
Director Tania Anderson told Filmmaker Magazine, “It was hard to believe this film hadn’t been made before!” The description of the film on Sundance’s website states, “As these young people reckon with the weight of their ambassador status, the film explores the varying ways in which their work shapes how they view themselves, the world, and their theology. Steadfast in its commitment to their perspectives, this film reveals the individuals behind the suits and nametags that have come to signify the work of [Latter-day Saint] missionaries globally.”
Anderson told Filmmaker Magazine it took about two years to get access to the right people at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, and several months of writing emails. She wanted to convince Church officials that the film was a coming-of-age story about the young people serving as missionaries, and not an investigative project about the Church. Then-Executive Director of the Missionary Department, Elder Brent H. Nielsen, who himself served a full-time mission in Finland in the 1970s, was the one who eventually signed off on the project.
Anderson shared with Deadline’s Virtual Sundance Studio that her inspiration for making the film came after she moved to a small town in Finland and often found herself walking with her three-month-old baby down the cold, dark, snowy streets of what felt like an endless winter. One day as she was walking, she happened upon two young men — Latter-day Saint missionaries — speaking in English about the widespread nature of temptation. She thought that it was an interesting conversation for two people of their age to be having.
Anderson pointed out that missionaries face constant rejection as most Finns will not pay any attention to them. She said:
There’s a huge cultural difference between Americans and Finns, especially young members of the LDS church and Finns. Finns are reserved, they’re independent… They don’t want to talk to people that much — it’s a form of politeness, like giving people space… Here you’ve got LDS missionaries who really want to help with their whole heart and all their love and enthusiasm and joy. And, so, there’s a lot of natural comedy that comes from the clashes of these two cultures.
During the interview with Deadline’s virtual studio, one of the missionaries featured in the film, Tyler Davis, who experienced mental health struggles in Finland, commented:
Going to Finland, it gave me the opportunity to understand myself more than ever before. I think the way that the Finns live — people calling them shy or being themselves more reserved — it gives them an opportunity to understand themselves more and be comfortable with self-love. And, so, I would say that how I coped, or how I dealt with the differences of Finland was that it transformed me to such a better person that I was able to love myself more. So, I’m [really] grateful for everything that Finland and the people did for me.
Megan Bills, another of the missionaries featured in the film, said:
It was [definitely] hard, like there [were] times … it was [really] difficult and draining. It always just led me to question, ‘Why am I here and why do I keep trying?’ And that answer was always the same, that I felt I was doing everything I could to spread love and joy and teach people about something that has changed my life, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Anderson told The Salt Lake Tribune, [I hope] people feel what it’s like to be a [Latter-day Saint] missionary, and be in their shoes just for a few moments. My hope is that when we see them, we say, ‘Oh, yeah, that guy’s just a regular dude, and he’s got the same sort of things going on [as me],’ then maybe there’s just a little less fear, a little less apprehension. It’s my peace project—my contribution towards a little bit more peace in this world.”