Sundance Film Features Latter-day Saint Missionary Life and Mental Health

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A one-of-a-kind new documentary about Latter-day Saint missionaries is notable for several reasons, but one is its open-ended depiction of an elder’s struggle with mental illness and how the church supported him.

“The Mission” premiered Monday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The filmmakers followed four missionaries from their homes and farewells at the missionary training center in Provo, Utah, to their postings in Finland.

This is the first time the church has given an outside filmmaker access to a missionary’s full mission, but much of the documentary will be extremely familiar to Latter-day Saints.

Director Tania Anderson thinks leaders of the missionary department agreed to the film when she said it would be a coming-of-age story. It certainly is. She called it a version of the hero’s journey.

The missionaries clearly struggled early on, especially with the language barrier – Finnish is one of the hardest languages ​​to learn.

In the end, they did indeed come of age. They grow in their missionary service. They master the language, mature, gain confidence and become leaders who appreciate both Finland and their missions.

Their collective love of their missions is most powerfully returned when Sister McKenna Field returns home. When a local leader releases her from her service, she cries as she reluctantly removes her badge.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is grateful to the Finnish documentary team who made a significant investment of time and effort to provide a comprehensive and independent look at the missionary experience of these four young saints. of the last days while serving as missionaries in Finland,” church spokesman Sam Penrod said.

“The Mission” is beautifully rendered but a flat timeline. Typical missionary highlights like conversions and baptisms look like awkward street contacts. It seems intentional. Anderson lets viewers draw their own conclusions about what’s going on.

When Elder Tyler Davis suffers from severe depression, it stands out.

“I just thought it was normal, and I still think it’s normal, to love, to have panic attacks and to have suicidal thoughts and to be, like, extremely depressed,” he said. he said to a companion. “And now I have anxiety and (I feel) all over, like bipolar or, you know, whatever.”

Davis begins seeing a therapist who works with missionaries in several missions. While he is grateful for the help, his struggles get worse.

Eventually, the decision was made that he should return home in October 2020, about nine months ahead of schedule.

The film shows him sitting for the last time with the head of mission, President Ilkka Aura, who assures him that he is loved and that this result is also acceptable. The President tells the story, included in Latter-day Saint scriptures, of a long-ago church member, Oliver Granger, whom Joseph Smith gave a difficult and distant mission that Granger could not perform only partially due to circumstances beyond its control. control.

President Aura reads the scripture to Davis and personalizes it for him: “Let no one therefore despise my servant, Oliver Granger” – “or Brother Davis,” Aura adds – “but the blessings of my people be upon him forever. and for ever.

“He’s the one who failed in this mission, and the Lord says no, ‘You will be remembered for generations,'” President Aura said. “As you know, you are called by a prophet of God. You have been appointed by an apostle of the Lord.

Near the end of the film, Davis plays drums at home. He is still struggling. He says others see him having 1,000 good times a day, “but I don’t feel good at all.”

Still, Davis is positive about his mission when he witnesses the return of one of the other missionaries, Elder Kai Pauole. The film ends with the two men walking towards the Payson Utah temple. As they walk away from the camera, Paule says he would recommend a mission to his children.

“I can echo that,” Davis says. “It will change your life.”

During a Sundance-sponsored panel discussion on the film, Davis said he’s doing better now.

“It was a beautiful trip,” he said. “It’s great to have gone to Finland and been part of a culture where you’re going to be completely isolated. And I feel like it helped me on my mental journey to be able to learn to love myself. … I still think about Finland every day. I would say the four of us yes. Finland has definitely changed our lives, and I would say all for the better.

Davis said watching “The Mission” was both rewarding and challenging because he remembered how he felt deep in his depression.

“The most important thing for me is that it’s great to see the personal growth I’ve seen inside myself, to remember the depressive feelings of what I felt before and the uncertainty things. … Without mental illness, I don’t think my life would have been as good for me, with Finland, to come home and learn to love myself and go to therapy. But I I’m much better, and I’m really proud of myself and I love myself a lot more.

Davis and the other missionaries said the film crew were supportive and comforting.

“We thank the producers for their professionalism and the respect they showed the missionaries and their beliefs during production,” said Penrod, the church spokesperson. “We invite those who view the program to learn more about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ by visiting missionaries serving in their local community.

Davis had a message for other people with mental illness. He said the therapy healed.

“And I had lovely companions who listened, lovely dear missionary friends who listened, and lovely Finns who listened,” he added. “So talking with a mission therapist was not my only (resource). For other missionaries or other people (who need help), find different people who really love and care about you, and be open with them. …Find those people that you can definitely open up and relate to, because that really helped my journey a lot.

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