Forkpah and Selli-Freetown

There are two lenses through which one can view Garrett Batty’s new LDS missionary film, Freetown: From the perspective of Mormon cinema and from the perspective of cinema at large.

Though a very promising step forward for faith-based cinema, when judged on the overall merits of independent film, Freetown, while enjoyable and engrossing in parts, would benefit from a broader focus and improved characterizations. Still, it is a tale worth seeing.

The premise is compelling: the true story of Mormon missionaries stuck in the middle of an unraveling civil war in Liberia, desperate to seek refuge in neighboring Sierra Leone. (Liberia endured two brutal civil wars from 1989-1996 and 1999-2003.) As Liberia descends into chaos and bellicose rebels seek control, generally apolitical missionaries are caught in the crossfire and forced to choose between faith allegiances and/or political ones. There are some compelling themes here and it’s a pity the film doesn’t spend more time exploring them, mostly reducing the missionaries to one-note actors that serve to counterbalance the film’s main protagonist, the Doubting Thomas local branch presidency member Philip Abubakar. Played by the excellent Henry Adofo, Abubakar is asked by the Elders’ mission president to bring them to ostensible safety in the eponymous Freetown, and it is he who appears to endure the most from the ordeal.

Freetown starts off strong. We visit different companionships of missionaries in Monrovia and its environs and witness the brutal conflict waged by rebels against members of the ruling party’s Krahn tribe. (Liberia’s then-leader, Samuel Doe, was notorious for showing favoritism and employing cronyism toward the Krahns.)

As you might expect from a film aimed at a broadly Christian audience, the real violence occurs off-screen. Normally, I would say it’s even welcome to allude to violence rather than show it, but there’s one scene in particular that had me perplexed from a filmmaking standpoint, and I recognize that it is an incredibly minor quibble, but it speaks to the difficulty in balancing real-world horror with nominally family-friendly content. Depicting something as heavy as genocide is difficult for Jell-O belt audiences.

During a roundup of alleged Krahns in a village, one of whom is a missionary, the local rebel leader, in an effort to demonstrate his ruthlessness, quickly dispatches another man in the lineup. But the way this is shot is strange. We see a wider shot of the man standing next to other captives, a gun to his head. Then the camera quickly veers to the left to put the unfortunate victim just out of sight when the trigger is pulled. Framing a shot this way nicely keeps intense violence off-camera, but it was such an obvious nod to avoiding graphic depictions of violence that it took me out of place during one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, denying it of its potency.

And thus, after setting the stage with a machete here, some senseless killings there, we descend into what is essentially a road movie. The Elders pile into Abubakar’s car and make the difficult journey to safety in Sierra Leone. What ensues are a number of vignettes, some of which are certainly real, but to the cynical eye, can seem all too convenient for the purposes of the plot. Garrett Batty was recently on our podcast to talk about making Freetown, and he discussed how these missionaries actually had to pass through over fifty checkpoints en route. In the film, this is thankfully reduced to a handful. You can listen to the podcast below.

The portrayal of missionaries is inspiring, but I can’t help but feel let down that after starting the film as seemingly nuanced characters, most of them descend into smiley, ever-believing missionaries while Brother Abubakar plays frustrated foil, only experiencing the culmination of his story arc near the end. Truly, Abubakar is pretty much the only character with an actual arc, and as the film’s protagonist, that’s fine, but the film is shot in a way that gives equal weight to the missionaries and Abubakar, thus leading the viewer to assume we’ll see decent arcs for a number of characters. Instead, we finish the film with the basic message of, “The Elders were right all along, Brother Abubakar!”

Freetown primarily suffers from a lack of subplot. This is an A-to-B affair with little filler or backstory. Sometimes this works (Gravity). I’m not arguing that every hero and villain needs a backstory; the world would be better off without more Maleficents. But in Freetown‘s case, greater context for the characters as well as the struggle and worry of the villages they leave, family members, ward members, or really any kind of action outside of the scope of the immediate plot at hand would help give the movie greater depth and breadth, and drive home key points about faith, perseverance, and trusting God.

Also, there are some plot holes. What’s up with the mercenary who is also an active member of his church branch? Batty and producer Adam Abel discussed this conflict amongst Mormons on our podcast, describing it as basically a job for people who have difficulty finding jobs, but exploring that on film would have been very interesting.

And the passports. Oh the passports. Spoiler alert: they lose their passports, but it’s never explained how on earth they actually enter into Sierra Leone after that. Unless I missed something, it’s a massive oversight.

There are plenty of positives. As faith-based or LDS cinema, Freetown represents a potential watershed moment. After cutting his teeth on The Saratov Approach, Garrett Batty has expanded his scope, raised production values, and set and shot a Mormon film in the developing world. It is incredibly valuable to touch on the Latter-day Saint perspective outside of traditional Mormon hubs. (Even Saratov still focused on two American missionaries and their American families.) Outside of the mission president and his wife, the entire production consists of native West African actors. (The film was shot in Ghana.)

And that is something of which we need more. Mormon filmmakers continue honing their craft, and the further we distance ourselves from the Halestorm comedies of yore, the better off we’ll be. (And that’s not a complete knock. The first Singles Ward is pretty droll and smartly written.)

Also, the score is excellent. This is a soundtrack to which I would actually listen. It hits on some exotic chord progressions while hinting at some of the more ethereal stuff one might find in an unnamed Ridley Scott film involving swords, sandals, and sand.

Any film that highlights the people of Africa (a broad brush, we know) in a positive light without reducing them all to a bunch of third world clichés is worth seeing for that reason alone. But Freetown not a thriller nor a suspense. The march to the inevitable comes as one expects, with more humorous turns along the way than anything else. Freetown‘s full ambition is just a bit beyond its reach. Still, we recommend the film for what it is and not what it isn’t, which is an ambitious entry in Mormon cinema, flaws and all.

Joseph Peterson contributed to this review.

Freetown. In theaters April 8, 2015. 1hr 55 mins. PG-13 for intense thematic material, but this is basically a “hard” PG.