Freetown is the latest missionary-oriented Mormon movie to come from director Garrett Batty, following his Saratov Approach two years ago. Like Saratov, Freetown is well acted, photographed, edited; it’s professionally done in every sense. The screenplay is credited to Batty and Melissa Leilani Larson; an amazing writer. I wish I could report that I liked this movie as much as I liked Saratov. I didn’t. I didn’t like it at all, for what are almost certainly completely idiosyncratic reasons of my own.
But first, the story. Freetown is set in Liberia, in 1989, right at the beginning of their first 7-year tribal and civil war. There was an LDS mission there, but the movie shows how the (white) mission leadership decamped to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to wait out the violence. They left behind the native Liberian missionaries. Among other dangers, rebels targeted a small ethnic tribal minority, the Krahn, the ruling tribe of Liberian President Samuel Doe. One missionary was Krahn. So six missionaries were transported across the country to Freetown, crammed into a tiny car and driven to safety by an LDS church member, Brother Abubakar (Henry Adofo), who had been left in charge of the mission office after the President’s departure.
In one of the first scenes in the movie, we see Abubakar sitting in his little car (which has Mark 9:24 on the back windshield), stuck in a mud puddle. He’s about to get out of the car, when he sees a small rebel patrol. They’re a dangerous looking bunch, very young, variously armed, and they do African rebel-y things like fire their AKs into the air. (Why do they do that? A bullet, fired directly upwards, will eventually fall back down to earth. It could hit someone. How many innocent folks are killed annually by falling bullets idiotically fired into the sky?). The rebels approach him, clearly suspicious. He doesn’t seem too bothered by them, though, just opens the car trunk, gets out some water, offers them a cup to drink. This apparently mollifies them. He then reaches to the roof of his car, gets out some planks of wood, which he uses to give his tires some traction, and off he drives. The rebels watch him go. So, heavily armed, deeply irresponsible teenage rebels are an ordinary fact of life for this guy. But Brother Abubakar knows how to deal with them. And so the main dynamic of the movie is established; this movie is set in a world that’s actually quite mundane and ordinary, and also dangerous and violent beyond belief.
Ordinary and also insane. Quotidian and surreal. That’s the whole movie. We see these six missionaries, and they’re normal Mormon guy missionaries; zealous, enthusiastic, hardworking. They street-contact, they hand out pamphlets, they share their testimonies with anyone who will listen. And also, there are these insanely violent murdering rebel gangs all over the place. And they’re simultaneously a disciplined military force, and also out of control violent and drunken and arbitrary. Freetown explores a world where ordinary people, on the street, minding their own business, can just get shot in the head, randomly. And also a world of normal daily routines. We see a group of saints chattering happily on their way to a baptism. But one of them is carrying a machete and an AK, and stands guard while they celebrate. It’s a movie where a branch member drives the missionaries around in his car. And crams six of them in this teensy crappy little car. And they drive hundreds of miles on these dirt roads, while rebels stop them every few miles to harass them.
And in time, it becomes the cognitive dissonance movie of the year. There’s one scene in which this is expressly spelled out. One of the missionaries, Elder Menti (Michael Attram) talks to Abubakar about how, after he’d joined the Church, he learned of the policy of priesthood exclusion, and it really bothered him, learning about the racist past of the Church he’d just joined. It led, he says, to cognitive dissonance. I’m glad that scene was in there, because, to me, the entire movie was a cog-diss exercise.
It’s a movie about this one Church member, and these six missionaries, and their journey through fearsomely dangerous Liberia to the comparative safety of Sierra Leone. And along the way, they are rely on a series of miracles. Like, there are almost no places for them to buy gasoline, but the car never runs out of gas until they’re out of money, at which point they find one station willing to give them enough to get them to safety. And when they get to the border, the bridge to Sierra Leone is out, but Brother Abubakar has a revelation about a ferry they can take instead. So they’re all these little but real miracles. God loves His missionaries. God loves these specific missionaries enough to help save them. That’s the message we’re meant to take away.
But it really doesn’t register much, because it takes place in the middle of the Liberian Civil War. Which we see enough of to be horrified by. A closing credit tells us that the missionaries, and Brother Abubakar, spent the next seven years in Sierra Leone, in safety. But what about their families? What about Brother Abubakar’s wife and children? How are we to take this? That God loves these six missionaries enough to intervene, to save them, but doesn’t love everyone else in Liberia about to be butchered? Cognitive dissonance indeed.
I know this is an idiosyncratic issue I have. Like, in Church, you’ll hear people bear their testimony about how they know God loves them, because there was this time that they needed to get to a Church meeting, but couldn’t find their car keys, so they prayed and, lo!, there were the keys. And I’m thinking, ‘yes, and what about Sister so-and-so in the ward, dying of liver cancer.’ Or Asian children forced into human trafficking, or starving kids in Darfur or the violence in the Congo. Does God really love Mormons enough to help us with reasonably trivial problems, but He doesn’t love other people (non-Mormons?) enough to intervene in some of the real horror shows in the world? Before Freetown aired, I saw a preview for a new Christian movie about a school shooting in which none of the kids died, because, the kids say, angels intervened. And I thought, ‘great. Good for you. Wouldn’t it be great if that happened more often.’
Also, I wish there weren’t just that teensy bit of vestigial colonialism in there. Like, the white mission President getting out just ahead of the violence, someone clearly having decided that his safety was essential, and the safety of his Liberian missionaries maybe kind of less so. And the super nice mission home in Sierra Leone reserved for the President. Except that was probably true, so including it is at least honest, revealing just that small sense of possible priorities back in ’89.
Could this have been fixed? Garrett Batty is a smart guy, a good director; Melissa Larson’s a terrific writer. I don’t think they intended to make the Cognitive Dissonance Plus Philosophical Problem of Evil movie of the year 2015. It’s the juxtapositioning of quiet little miracles for Mormon guys and the Horrors of African Civil Wars for everyone else that made this such a disquieting (and not in good ways) viewing experience.
First, the movie’s awfully coy about violence, and in this case, I think it was a mistake. We’re not really forced to confront it. We see a guy being led off to be shot, and then the camera pans away, and we hear the shot; we don’t see him killed. I think we need to really face up to the reality of rebel civil war.
But simultaneously, we need to see some larger purpose to saving these missionaries. Michael Attram, the actor who played one missionary, looks a lot like Malcolm X, for example. Well, these six guys come across really well; they seem like really good guys. What if the movie suggested that they’re the solution? Frankly, a screwed-up poor country like Liberia could really use some smart, decent natural leaders. What if one of the missionaries (Menti, probably) were individualized just a bit more, made to seem like a genuine future statesman? What if the movie just hinted that God needed to save these six guys to give Liberia some kind of future, some hope, some desperately needed moral leadership?
And maybe that’s all subtly suggested, and I just missed it. I have cognitive dissonance issues of my own, after all. I’m not saying don’t see it. Just be aware; I found it a very strange movie, and nowhere near as inspirational as I think it was intended to be.