by Scott Hales
I’m not usually a fan of Mormon missionary movies or novels for two reasons. First, I think they are overrepresented in Mormon culture. The Latter-day Saint experience is richly textured and broad, offering storytellers limitless possibilities. But so often these storytellers choose only to tell missionary stories. Which leads to my second problem: most missionary stories are relatively uninspired variations of one of three formulas: 1) a wayward missionary gets/loses a testimony (essentially the same story), 2) American missionaries escape peril in a foreign land, or 3) a hotshot missionary has pretty much the best, most successful mission ever. The first two are the most popular. The third kind is less common, but always—always—a chore to watch or read.
In some ways, Garrett Batty’s new missionary film, Freetown, is like other stories about missionaries in peril. Set in Liberia during a brutal civil war, it follows a group of six missionaries and a branch president as they take a two-day journey north by car to the safety of the mission office in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Along the way, they face a number of challenges, including bad roads and angry armed rebels. But Freetown also delivers something new to the genre: aside from the mission president, who appears on screen for not more than two or three minutes, the film has no American presence. All the main characters are Mormons from West Africa.
This is a huge leap for Mormon missionary stories, which are ultimately always about the American Mormon experience—even when they are set outside U.S. borders. Think about novels like Ryan McIlvain’s Elders, Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven, and Alan Rex Mitchell’s Angel of the Danube—or films like Mitch Davis’s The Other Side of Heaven, Scott S. Anderson’s The Best Two Years or Christian Viussa’s The Errand of Angels. Each of these works—including those, like Elders, that earnestly try to depict international characters—is primarily interested in its American characters and their fish-out-of water experiences in foreign lands. While these works are often well-written and entertaining, they leave audiences with the impression that the American Mormon experience is the only lens through which we can and should understand the world-wide church.
Freetown largely avoids this trap by taking it for granted that Mormonism is global. When the missionaries in the film talk about home, they don’t talk about football, apple pie, or BYU. Instead, they talk about their conversions and their desire to teach a gospel that has changed their lives. And here is another thing that sets Freetown apart from other missionary stories: it doesn’t consign viewers to another insufferable, overdone story about an inadequately prepared missionary who’s only serving a mission because it’s what his dad/bishop/ward/girlfriend expects. The missionaries in Freetown struggle with dramatic personal issues, but none of them are in the middle of a faith crisis. This is a departure from convention—and I welcome it.
That’s not to say Freetown isn’t concerned with faith and doubt. Phillip Abubakar, the branch president who risks his life to drive the missionaries to Freetown, is a practical, devout man who struggles to believe in miracles. The missionaries buoy him up, encouraging his faith at the most trying moments of their journey, and help him recognize the miraculous in the seemingly mundane. Indeed, because Abubakar is the most ordinary of characters, viewers are especially drawn to identify with him and his spiritual journey. He never doubts in the existence of God, but he does wrestle with the idea that God intervenes in the lives of the faithful. Freetown, therefore, is less about finding faith than discovering the power of faith.
Of course, in its attention to faith, Freetown has heavy-handed moments when characters speak profundities as solemn music plays in the background—something The Saratov Approach did as well. Some viewers may find these moments overly preachy and off-putting for the way they offer gospel messages or insights. Personally, I found the words themselves wholly consistent with the way missionaries–and Mormons in general–talk about the gospel with each other. However, I do find the music and the way the actors suddenly look off into the distance unnecessary. I wish the filmmakers had let the words speak for themselves more. They did not need music and distant gazes to make them powerful.
This problem aside, Freetown benefits from a strong cast and exceptional production value. The film is beautifully shot on location, providing the film with an impressively authentic look. Henry Adolfo is excellent as Abubakar, and his performance, particularly, carries the last fifteen minutes of the film. For me, however, the film’s strongest performance comes from Phillip Adekunle Michael, who plays Elder Gaye, a missionary who, because he is a member of the Krahn tribe, must conceal his identity from the rebel forces bent on killing his people. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Elder Gaye scratches his last name off his missionary nametag to avoid questions about his tribal affiliation. On the one hand, the scene is heartbreaking, depicting a kind of painful denial of self and family. At the same time, however, it is a reminder that one of the greatest challenges in true discipleship is to deny ourselves and take upon us the name of Christ. Fear motivates Elder Gaye to erase—literally—his identity. Yet, after doing so, he is able to reclaim his self through selfless service to Christ.
For the past decade, Mormon film has been wallowing in direct-to-DVD flops that have done little more than showcase amateurism. While there have been some standouts—Napoleon Dynamite, Saints and Soldiers—none have done a better job than The Saratov Approach and Freetown in telling stories that remind viewers why Mormonism is so meaningful to those who embrace it. Freetown, first and foremost, is a compelling story, but we should take pride in the fact that it is also a Mormon story.
A true Mormon story, in fact—although I admit that I have no clue where it takes liberties with history. Were the missionaries really hunted by a vengeful rebel? Did the ending really happen the way it’s portrayed in the film? I don’t know and I don’t think it matters. Freetown is a story that could happen in the Mormon universe. The characters are realistically drawn and the situations they find themselves in—including the miracles they encounter along the way—seem wholly plausible. It is a groundbreaking film, and we can only hope that it will lead Mormon film to even greater horizons.
Freetown is now showing in select theaters nationwide.
Follow Scott Hales at @scotthales80.