Sundance Interview: “The Mission” Director Tania Anderson

By Morgan Roberts

“The Mission” is a documentary film which follows four missionaries from the Church of Latter-Day Saints as they serve their mission, spreading the word of God while also finding their paths in life. The film chronicles their time before their mission, through their years of service in Finland, and what happened when they returned home.

Directed by Tania Anderson, “The Mission”(2022) shows previously inaccessible parts of life for Mormon missionaries and humanizes the people behind the black ties and skirts. Anderson is an emerging filmmaker of American, British, and Swiss nationality. Anderson is currently based in Helsinki, Finland. Previously, she has worked as a writer and journalist, most recently for “National Geographic.” “The Mission” is her first feature-length documentary.

In Their Own League writer Morgan Roberts spoke with Anderson about “The Mission,” stripping away stereotypes, and the types of films she hopes to make in her burgeoning career.

Morgan Roberts: The film’s premise is about young adults on their mission on behalf of the Church of Latter Day Saints. And it’s a very niche and a little bit isolated community. So I’m kind of wondering what led you to focus on Mormon missionaries?

Tania Anderson: I’ve got members of my family that are members of the church, and they’re distant relatives, and we haven’t been that much in touch. We are kind of the black sheep of the family in that. So there has been that; the LDS church has been in my life in a sense, for as long as I can remember. But I grew up in quite a non-religious, secular household, like almost anti-religion, kind of, and not atheist, either. And not agnostic, either. My parents were quite clear that they wanted us to grow up, because I grew up in France, and in a very Catholic country, and they wanted us, my brother and I, to grow up without religion. So that we could make up our own minds when we became adults, or when our minds sort of would naturally go that way or not. Yeah, so in that sense, it’s always been some sort of thing that I’m like, “Oh, I’m not gonna touch that.” That’s something that I have to give a wide berth to, and including literally with the missionaries, you know. I was taught to- my dad told me, “if you get cornered by missionaries, this is how you should respond.” And it wasn’t until I became an adult, I suppose, that it became apparent and I actually started to just think with my own mind. And yeah, I came across these two missionaries when I was living in rural Finland, and it was so nice to hear English and when you live in an isolated place, geographically, but also linguistically, you really hang on to your native tongue. It’s like “Oh, thank God.” So when speaking English, I feel, “that sounds so nice. I can actually eavesdrop, if I want to,” and that’s what I ended up doing. My first thought when I saw them was like, “oh, no, run,” you know, “they’ve seen me, well, where do I go?” But actually, they hadn’t seen me, which was really nice. Because I’m always that person that gets stopped at the airports, or that always gets stopped by someone handing out leaflets. So I’m that person. But they hadn’t seen me and they were just having a conversation amongst themselves and I overheard them talk about temptation being everywhere. And that really piqued my curiosity because I thought, “Hmm, okay, and I don’t know.” Something shifted for me, like I kind of saw these young people, you know, behind the suits, for the very first time. Up until then, I had only seen the suits. And I had been taught in a way to step away, go the opposite direction, go down another street. Just don’t. And I actually saw these kids, they felt like kids to me, and I saw them for the first time. And then just that evening, I was just thinking, “Hmm, they must be really scared.” You know, it’s November it’s dark, it’s cold. They must be homesick and they just got me thinking about a whole bunch of stuff.

Morgan: And I think that was kind of what was so profound about the film is I grew up in an area where there were a lot of Mormons and Mormon missionaries. So it is very easy to just kind of blanket look at them as the personification of what their churches are and then you have these really great participants in Kai, Tyler, Megan, and McKenna. And so what was it like, almost like recruiting them or getting them to kind of come into your vision?

Tania: Yeah, thank you for that question. I guess, if you want information on how, you know, I had to get in touch with the church, and I had to get in touch with the kids… But, to answer your question, specifically, I can also give information about that. The one thing I stressed with the kids… I call them the kids, they’re not kids…

Morgan: But they were 18. So they do kind of feel like kids.

Tania: Yeah, they were. So when I first interviewed them, I was trying to- there are a few things that I was looking for. One of the things I was looking for is, who would be the most emotionally available, and who was able to talk about more difficult emotions perhaps. And also who, – there’s this thing, which I’m sure you’re aware of, there’s this thing that the members of the LDS church are really good at. They really have this armor of niceness -this really thick armor of being super nice. And what I was looking for is how can I get past that? And how quickly can I get past that? So the interviews lasted, like from anything from 15 minutes to two hours. And it became apparent at some point or not, that you can get past it with some people and some people where I didn’t. It must have been confusing for them. Because I think when they were asked if they wanted to be a part of a documentary, I interviewed 13 of them. And I think many of them thought like right now I have to be the best missionary ever and prove myself and then I made it very clear that it’s really not about being the best missionary possible. It’s about being the best you possible, like the most sort of authentic down to earth you that you can be. And then something that I repeated a lot during the process of filming was that it’s important because they’re on a hero’s journey. You know, from the offset it’s just this classic hero’s tale of someone going out, leaving home going out into the world facing the dragons, and coming home a changed person. It’s the hero’s journey. The classical one, at least. And so I was like, in order for us to see kind of you overcome those challenges, and become the hero, we need to see those more difficult times. And so that’s how I got them to share more, perhaps more openly, because they could see that the bigger picture of how this would all pan out, or how it would hopefully pan out. But yeah, lots of conversations, lots before I even met them. We Skyped a whole bunch of times, just so that I could meet their family and I encouraged [asking] “please, does anybody want for me to meet any of your parents, like, I’d love to speak with them.” Because I thought it was just very important that their parents are on board, you know, this is a huge deal for the whole family. So, I just kind of talk my way through it, I guess.

Morgan: That’s amazing. And I think, you can probably also touch on the casting part, too. But I was extremely impressed by the access that you received, to be able to join them at, you know, the Mormon temple because there aren’t a lot of people granted access to that, you’re granted access to meetings that I’m sure most people aren’t being invited to who are not in the church. So I’m kind of wondering what that process was like to be granted access? And if, you know, there was any oversight in the access that you did receive? Like was there anyone at the church kind of looking at your work before you put it in the final product? And those types of things?

Tania: Yeah. Yeah, I can answer that question quite quickly. That’s no, they never asked for us to watch the final cut. And that was never part of our agreement. And there were a few key factors. I mean, I would say honesty is really the best policy. We went into this whole process with an open heart and just being honest, really from the start. I spoke to my producers at length about that, as well as the crew that we just have to be really upfront and honest. It took us a long time, first of all, to get access, to get work, to get in touch with the right people. And then when we finally got in touch with the right people, it took a process of about two years for us to get in touch with the right people to talk to in Salt Lake. And then finally, our project was put forth to some, I don’t even know who, but some sort of board of people who, you know, are sitting up in Salt Lake, making decisions about this kind of stuff. We had made demos, we had actually filmed with a couple of missionaries who were living in Finland, and that gave them an idea of the mood and style that we were after. That was after a long process of getting in touch with the mission president who was in charge of all the missionaries in Finland. But anyway, this board oversaw and looked at our project. And then a few months later, I was holding my breath I think the whole time, but we got greenlit, which was amazing. And I think at that very point, there was a lot of luck involved, depending on how you want to look at it, because the executive director of the missionary department who’s in charge of all the missionaries in the entire world, he served his mission in Finland in the 70’s. So we got super lucky that that guy specifically was in charge of saying yes or no to this project. And from then on, it was like, I would ask the church, “Hey, so this shoot’s coming up. Can we film this? Can we not film this? Like, what is protocol? What is okay, what is not?” And I just learned along the way. But whenever I asked these sorts of very honest questions, I would always make sure that there was a space for them to respond and say, “Okay, this is our boundary. This is where you can go.” So I think that was the constant set up between me and the church authorities. There was one guy who was in charge of our project, and then I could lean on him day or night and just say, “Hey, we’ve got a baptism coming up. I want to film all of this, how do I do that?” And then he would put me in touch with somebody, and then I’d go around making a ton of phone calls and made sure that the congregation was informed ahead of time. So that no one was too kind of ruffled by the whole experience. So yeah, it was just a lot. And then finally, -sorry, I think this is relevant to the question. We, in order to secure our public financing from Finland, because it’s public money, we needed to have some sort of letter from the church, because there was always the thought, “Are you being funded by the church?” We had to get that on paper that this was not the case. So after some time, we got some paper agreement that was signed at the church basically saying, we’re not in production with these guys. They’ve made their own agreements with the individuals involved. So yeah, so that was kind of how it went. And it’s definitely not lost on me, what a huge leap of faith it was for the church to do this, because this is the first time this type of project has been able to be made. And yeah, we got, I think, maybe lucky with the timing.

Morgan: Incredible. And I think, too, I find that really interesting that people thought that the church was funding it because the film doesn’t shy away from sometimes the hypocrisy in, you know, the Book of Mormon, just like the historical inaccuracies. And, you know, I loved that scene where I believe it was McKenna went to go preach with a family, and they’re talking about, 600 years before Jesus, they were in America and the family’s like, “let’s just look at the timeline here.” So what was it like kind of holding that in it too? Because obviously, we don’t want to, we want truth in what we’re portraying.

Tania: I made it clear to the church from the beginning that we’re not making a film about the church, that we’re making a film about these young people, and their coming of age story, sort of within this experience. Because my background’s in anthropology, so these coming of age tales are just very important, you know, how children become adults. And so the focus was always on that. And then, as we started filming, it became abundantly clear to me that in a way, the safest place to be is to be as close to these young people as possible. Because it’s really about their experience, and it’s about their looks of disappointment, and their looks of hope, and their size and their smiles. And that’s in a way, how we get to understand a little bit about how the church works. But it was really more about what effect it all has on them, as they’re going through this huge thing. And they’re carrying the weight in a way. You know, they’re carrying their own future within the church on their shoulders, as well as the future of the church. It’s an immense amount of pressure. I mean, pressure is one way to put it. It’s -how do they call it? I call it a mantle. So that’s a different vocabulary, but it’s a heavy weight that they have to carry. So in that sense, it didn’t matter what happened, because the idea was to film their reaction to what was happening. And of course, it was nice to also get those shots of people and this very Finnish directness, those things they say. 

Morgan: And just thinking about that kind of made me jump ahead to another question; you’re seeing them with so much pressure, so much responsibility, and there was one quote that Tyler said, “I think it’s completely normal to feel mad at God.” And it is both a very humbling thing and a little bit of a crisis of faith with him as well, dealing with his mental health. So I’m kind of wondering if you can talk about that piece to it as well.

Tania: Sure, just for the record, I never set out to make a piece about mental health. This is just kind of what happens, so we just kind of went with it. And Tyler was the most vocal from the start, as you can see from the film, he is just such an open hearted, such a wise person. And he expresses himself in the most amazingly way for a young man. I don’t know any young man who expresses himself that well and can talk about difficulties, – he’s just an incredible guy. And so it became clear to me that he was kind of becoming the hero of this story. We always thought of Tyler maybe as like, the supporting actor, that Kai would be more the hero and then Tyler would take the back seat in a way and be that supporting character, but it kind of switched during the process of filming. And so, yeah, I love that scene. And that part, it’s incredibly heartbreaking to watch him go through that again and again, and editing, it was incredibly painful. But it was such a huge, an amazing insight into lots of different aspects of what they’re going through. And I think one of them is, as I see it, because it’s that coming of age story of becoming, you know, there’s peer pressure they experience before going on their mission. And it’s like, “you’re gonna have the best time ever, and it’s gonna make you into a man and, you know, girls, girls…” In the church they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, he’s so hot, he just came out, he just came off his mission.” There’s this increased sex appeal that men get once they come off their mission, so there’s a lot riding on men especially completing their mission, like returning with honor. And it was so heartbreaking to see this young man accept his fate. So that’s why I think I just got goosebumps. But I just feel like it’s one thing to accept God’s plan if everything goes according to plan, if you complete your mission. But it’s a totally different story, if you have to accept God’s plan and not complete your mission; it’s a lot bigger. You know, it’s a huge kind of leap of faith, a huge step to believing more and accepting. So you can make sense of it all, or not. And so it’s really then down to this question of faith, you know, do you believe it enough? So you accept your fate? Or, do you reject it? And I know, of course, people have done that.

Morgan: I think one of the things that I am assuming was quite a challenge was having to edit this film, because you have many years of footage to try to capture these stories. So what was your editing process like? Because, you know as you mentioned up front, you might think that one person is kind of our lead who’s carrying us through the film, and then something changes, like, you know, Tyler’s very vocal journey with his mental health. And so what was it like editing and trying to capture so much of what happened over those years? 

Tania: Yeah, I think it became quite clear early on that they were all telling a part of one story, and that’s kind of like the missionary story. So, McKenna is very good at telling this part about the family and the importance of the family and how there’s there’s a lot of pressure, you know, to keep everybody together so you can be in heaven forever together for all eternity. And Megan, at least as I see it, is kind of more like a wilder youth who then becomes a member who truly believes- they talk about this missionary glow that some people get. And they become, I don’t know, just sort of like entranced with their whole experience and their whole service, and who really identify with that sense of service. And Megan, I think, does that very well. And of course, Kai and Tyler; you know, Kai is the underdog who becomes a man who finds his confidence, finds himself. Tyler’s the kind of the jock who gets humbled basically, or the All American kind of maybe naive, maybe super optimistic guy who gets a few knocks along the way. So they’re all telling the different aspects of missionaryhood. And so, in that sense, it was nice to edit where we could, we would find similar themes. So we went through themes first. And we thought, okay, what are the themes here? And what is the arc and what is kind of the plot twist and all that stuff. And it became pretty clear when Tyler had his, you know, all of his stuff going on that there were so many important things that were revealed during that process. Not that the issues themselves were the focus, but more kind of like what they were revealing about faith and their relationship to this experience, as he was having his mental breakdown, so to speak. He had been living in darkness for six months, you know, and a lot of people in Finland get seasonal depression. And he tried for so many months to even use his depression as a means to connect with the locals better. So he was really trying to use all the gifts that God was giving him to to complete his mission, including his depression. I’m so sorry, I got lost. But yes, sorry, editing it. So it became clear that he was carrying the emotional brunt of the film, and then we kind of piggybacked on him to tell us the story, in a sense.

Morgan: Yeah. And I also love in the editing, you do, kind of let them be goofy young adults. There’s one particular scene that struck me where there were two elders just having a snowball fight. So was it important to kind of keep a little bit of reminding us that they’re young in the film. And, you know, was there anything about their youth that kind of struck you by their naivete?

Tania: Yeah, I mean, I think it was just really important to see them as who they are. Because, you know, it was so much fun. Like, I’d be listening to them as they were of course, miked up the whole time, and I could hear and kind of follow their conversation, to know when to film. And then Tyler would be off in the distance, and he’d be like, “Hey, Tania, I know you can hear me, can I get to run into this patch of snow?” And then I’m like, “No, don’t do that!” [laughs] So you know, they are goofy. And they get turned down 10 times and they keep on walking. They’re conversing like, “What’s your favorite food?” You know, they have to find ways to kind of cope. And it’s weird because they’re getting to know their companion while they’re getting rejected all the time. So they’re talking about just random crap, you know, to make it through the day and Kai would talk incessantly about steaks and trucks. Well, he just wanted his truck so badly and he wanted to eat steak and he was hungry most of the time because food is so expensive. And there’s so many things I wish we could have gotten, but all of that little stuff was kind of really precious. Because it just tells their story.

Morgan: I loved that part. And, you know, I think we as a society, kind of view Mormons and the church and missionaries in a very kind of cold, calculated way. And so I’m wondering what you hope audiences will learn from this film and what you kind of hope that they connect with?

Tania: The goal of this film was never to make people think about faith or whether or not it’s a good idea, whether or not the church is right or wrong. But it was really to create some sort of heart connection between people, people that are usually stereotyped.  And so my hope is to create a feeling for a very short while, what it’s like to be in the shoes of LDS missionaries,  because I think there are many groups that we easily stigmatize.  There’s this idea of like, “Oh well, I don’t need to know because I already know.” Like, “I already know who those refugees are; I already know what they want. I already know what those homeless people are.  I know their story, I don’t need to know more.”  And so we kind of lose that curiosity because we just “know.” I think you can create that sort of connection between individuals and say, “Okay, you’re not actually that different.”  These people believe this dogma, and these people believe a different type of dogma or no dogma, but they can still see that commonality. “These are just regular kids,” then we also reduce the fear a little bit.  It doesn’t mean we have to agree. But we reduce that fear around it. I just hope people are curious. And not about the church, per se, but just curious in general,  about people.  That we’re just basically the same.  

Morgan: Absolutely.  So, as the filmmaker, what is one thing either about your film or the process of working with these missionaries that surprised you most?

Tania: I guess the thing that surprised me is that they really, at least the kids I met, really want to help. They really, really want to help. And I don’t believe what they believe, and I don’t necessarily think that going around and telling people that they need to be saved is the best way to actually save people or the best way to get people on board. But I saw that they’re doing everything with a full heart. It’s not even that they want people to join the church necessarily, they just want to help. They want to do people’s dishes. They want to take out the trash. They want to help shovel the snow. They really want to be of service. And I think that was a very humbling experience for me, because it’s like, when does that happen? When does it happen when kids put down social media for a second and dedicate all their time to walking an old person across the street?

Morgan: Amazing. So, I just have a couple of questions that I like to ask at the end. So, what is a film that inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Tania: “Lost in Translation.” One of my all-time favorites. What I love about that is how down-to-earth it was. And how not a whole lot was happening in a sense, at least that’s how I experienced it at first. And it’s really about creating. That’s so much you can create in terms of mood and you don’t need, like, action in order to create this sheer beauty in that sense of connection between the viewer. That was mind-blowing for me. It has always been something I’ve aspired to. And recently, I’ve been looking more closely at Chloe Zhao’s work. When I saw “The Rider,” I know it’s a relatively recent film, but that just blew my mind. Because, I was actually making “The Mission” at the same time, and I was like, “That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life” – in documentary form, but that is what I want to do because I feel like with her movies you can always smell them, you can always smell them because she’s so close. And that’s what I want to create, that real connection between the viewer and the subject. I want to do that for the rest of my life in documentary form.

Morgan: Absolutely. So, I might know the answer, but who is a woman that is working in your field that you admire?

Tania: [laughs] I suppose Chloe Zhao. That would be a good answer for that. 

Morgan: My last question, who is a historical person from an underrepresented community that people should know more about and why?

Tania: Issan Dorsey. He was, I think it was the ‘80’s, the ‘90’s, probably ‘70’s, but there’s a great book that was written about his work, and he was basically working in the gay community in San Francisco. Then he himself had contracted HIV and then it developed into AIDS. But he found a way to create a place of zen practice by creating a space for all of these people who were basically dying during the AIDS outbreak in San Francisco.

To learn more about the film “The Mission” visit the website https://www.autlookfilms.com/films/the-mission#/.

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