Get The Fire!
Young Mormon Missionaries Abroad

(Photo Courtesy IDFA 2002)
Three nineteen-year-olds travel, at the invitation of their church, from the secure surroundings of their homes in Salt Lake City, Utah to an area not too distant from the Black Forest in Germany. Sound like something out of a fairy tale? No, their journey is made so that they might undergo a two-year missionary training and rites of passage. Armed with their "Book of Mormons" and a passable knowledge of the German tongue, they wander into the wilderness (with financial support from their families) in order to find new recruits while also exploring their inner selves. As expressed by one of their fathers, "When they go away on their training, they're boys, but when they come back, they're men."

Approximately sixty thousand Mormons go on convert-seeking missions every year in an organized attempt to make the flock grow. More often than not, these young men usually achieve their greatest successes by gathering positive attentions from approaching displaced outsiders, such as American servicemen living abroad.

Producer/director Nancy du Plessis has concentrated specifically on Jake, Matt and Brady as the three young men heading toward Munich. The Missionary Training Center (MTC) has not only offered them the opportunity beforehand to learn the foreign language they need, but furnished them with abundant church doctrine and missionary technique to assist them in attempting and possibly achieving their goals. Walking from door to door and standing in the snow on city squares, they do their best as they relentlessly, but both courteously and jovially, try to spread the word of the BOM.

Of course, discipline and regimentation are necessary in making such a campaign successful, so, as a result, they have rigid rules to follow, a daily schedule to keep, and a sturdy hierarchy to listen to. The Mission President and his wife amiably point out the proper way toward achievement while other supervisors operate, according to doctrine, as "zone" and "district" leaders. Young men ("Elders") and young women ("Sisters") must remain within visible and audible range of a same sex companion for 24-7. (Homosexuality, by the way, is not only frowned upon, but also forbidden. Look it up in the Book.) In Germany, as they had already expected from tales they were told at home, the young men are confronted with their first taste of skepticism. All the more reason to offer their goods. Many doors close as they attempt to reach out toward the members of households with their message in a friendly, youthful, innocent, and hopeful manner.

What is more interesting than their success in attracting converts (within the confines of this film), however, is their personal development during this period. Offered a first exposure to the wide world as well as a newly nurtured insight into themselves, the young men discover their own separate and distinct personalities and visions of their personal road toward progress. We see them at their energetic best and we see them exhausted from the daily strain of their routine. We see them both in conviction and in doubt. We see them as young, vibrant men and we see them struggling with both spiritual and physical borders. When one of them has met the girl of his dreams, the stringent tensions ordering his day seem to relax spontaneously and offer us a glimpse of a young boy with instinctual and basic desires. Later in the film, before we see the leader at home in the States confronting the boys once again with consideration toward the next necessary step on the agenda, that of choosing a lifetime companion and mate, we are told that going on a mission and being trained by the MTS is also regarded as a definite status-symbol attached to these young men, which makes them exceedingly popular among the young Mormon crop of girls.

Various other members and ex-members of the Mormon community are given a chance on camera by du Plessis to reflect upon their past experiences in the community and this adds an additional flavor of what potential futures could lurk behind the developments we watch taking place within our three lead characters. A strict upbringing does not necessarily mean that the pathway ahead has been completely cleared. A closely-knit white, straight, and religiously united social structure cannot always prevent exceptions to the rules, no matter how hard the determination of their leaders might be.

IDFA 2002
On the other hand, among the dictates of strategic planning and adherence to organized doctrines, we discover there may also be some contradictions as well as fantastical convictions present. Now, many people are aware that Joseph Smith plowed new pastures in 1830 as he did his work in New York, but how many knew that his convert seeking sectarians were all part of one, big gigantic corporation heading toward a harmonious future? Yes, religion can be big business and give you everything you want; that is, as long as you want it the way they give it to you. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints seems to be filled to the brim with managerial talent, overworked and trained until nothing appears impossible, who are willing to try and convince even the most non-aggressive non-convert that American Indians once lived in Israel and were fluent in Egyptian.

Miss du Plessis shot 270 cassettes on DVCAM for more than 2 years before she managed to edit the final 57-minute screening version. A fascinating study of three boys from the Mormon community manages to offer a subtle revelation of the corporate edges that almost remain completely hidden from the camera's eye. The members have meetings where charts and graphs are used to analyze their rates of success at gaining converts. The members all seem quite content with their lifestyles and have created a world kept strictly safe from any "undesirable" influences. If one is willing to become a forceful marketing machine and follow the dictates established by a super-straight, unremittingly demanding, and exceedingly regulatory board of leaders, this might be the right place to seek a stable and bright, if not quite carefree, existence. And they do have a lovely Tabernacle Choir.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett