Given to Women

A few nights ago, I sat down with a notepad and pen and watched The Errand of Angels, a film about sister missionaries in Austria that premieres this week in Utah and Idaho . Having served a full-time mission myself, I was anxious to see what kind of “sisterly” story was going to grace the screen. This is a first for Mormon Cinema. We’ve seen God’s Army and The Other Side of Heaven portray the challenges of missionary service for Elders. But never before have we seen sisters in action. I was ready to be entertained.

All photos courtesy of “The Errands of Angels”

The movie is about Rachel Taylor who receives her mission call on her 21 st birthday to serve in the Austria Vienna Mission. She arrives with high ideals, low language skills, and a desire to change the world. Her non-member grandparents are paying for her mission so she wants to give it her all. But when she confronts a disagreeable companion, new language, new cuisine, and an all too infrequent listening ear, Sister Taylor isn’t sure she has what it takes. The Errand of Angels is her journey of becoming. It’s a story about loving your closest neighbor and experiencing a mighty change from within. To view the trailer, click here.

Bottom line? The movie was fabulous – absolutely believable and authentically touching, with spiritual moments that did not feel manipulated or overdone. For me, the stir of nostalgia was palpable. I kept laughing and thinking to myself, “That is exactly what it was like!” And I served in Illinois! Geographical opposites notwithstanding (corn fields vs. Austrian Alps), the scenes were all too familiar.

It was the endless tracting without success, the awkward street contacts, the no-show appointments, and of course, the “how in the world are we ever going to work together?” companion. Equally reminiscent was the over-eager yet heartfelt diligence in seeking out the one. Returned sister missionaries will definitely connect. In fact, any returned missionary will relate. The movie has potential for impact among converts, seasoned members, and even those of other faiths who are curious about young “Sisters” in dresses with black nametags. The Errand of Angels is a movie that powerfully conveys the unique work of Latter-day Saint women who have chosen to offer all they have in full-time service for the Lord.

Johnson and Vuissa – A Team Effort

After viewing the film, I spoke with writer, Heidi Johnson for about an hour. It felt like ten minutes – the conversation was so easy, poignant, and delightful. It was Johnson who had the initial idea for the story. Using her mission journal, she wanted to craft a story about her mission to Austria (1993-1995) for a few special people in her life. Before long, however, the story morphed into a screenplay and as she puts it, she became “part of something much bigger than herself.”

Johnson is slow to take credit for the film. The main character, Sister Rachel Taylor (played by Erin Chambers of The Singles 2nd Ward ) is based on Johnson’s experiences in Austria . Although Taylor has some of Johnson’s quirky mannerisms and even parallels some of Johnson’s personal life, Johnson says, “the movie is not about her”.

During a particularly busy time in her life, Johnson was debating whether she should continue writing the story. In her sacrament meeting that Sunday, a group of sister missionaries performed a musical number. As the Sisters sang, Johnson knew she had to finish the script. She began to see the movie as a gift for sister missionaries, a tribute of sorts. And from that point on, the heavens became involved and Johnson saw miracle after miracle move the project forward.

Actors Rachel Emmers, Erin Chambers, and Eunicia Jones posed with filmmaker/writer, Heidi Johnson (center right) after a screening of their film, “The Errand of Angels”.

The first miracle was connecting with film director, Christian Vuissa. Vuissa has directed a number of LDS films ( Baptists at our Barbecue, Roots and Wings ) and is founder of the LDS Film Festival. He also happened to serve as a missionary in Johnson’s father-in-law’s mission. Not to mention – he is Austrian! So Johnson made the connection. Vuissa was interested in the project and together, they co-wrote the screenplay for The Errand of Angels .

A movie seemed daunting to Johnson. She describes it as feeling a bit like Nephi when he was asked to build a boat. Yet she had complete trust that God would aid her efforts. And she had full confidence in Vuissa, whom Johnson salutes for producing such a beautiful film. Johnson describes Vuissa as “really smart and really artistic.” He likes to tell stories about ordinary people and distinguishes himself from many filmmakers, Johnson says, because his goal is simply to edify. As a result, “his work is amplified”.

Johnson is a mother of four and was not on-site for the filming. After weighing what was most important and where she was needed most, she knew it simply wasn’t necessary for her to be there. She did, however, do a lot of praying and fasting. She fasted for Vuissa to find the right places to film, the right Austrian actors to fill the roles, and for the right Rachel. While looking on-line for actors, Johnson saw Erin Chambers (who has red hair like Johnson) and knew immediately that Chambers was the one. Chambers does a fabulous job rolling Johnson’s humor, enthusiasm, and spirituality into the character of Rachel Taylor.

More About the Cast

The cast received their lines two days before Vuissa started filming. Both Chambers and Rachel Emmers who plays Sister Young (also in States of Grace and Out of Step) – spoke no German before the project began. Yet 30% of the film is in English subtitles. Pretty miraculous.

Johnson laughed when she told me she wrote all the “bad” German for the script while Vuissa wrote the “good” German. “Bad” German was more her forte’, she said. The faltering conversations with Germans who don’t “speak English” really are comical and, according to Johnson, par for her lingual experience. Sister Taylor’s German does improve substantially by the end of the movie (kudos to Chambers).

Providentially, Vuissa discovered a handful of Austrian actors, who were not LDS, including native actress Bettina Schwarz who plays Sister Keller. Sister Keller is Taylor ‘s most challenging companion. Unwilling to speak anything but German (although she does speak English), she snubs Sister Taylor’s questions, snores so loudly Taylor can’t sleep, and collects rocks for no apparent reason. Schwarz is fantastic and said she would love to work with Vuissa again.

The movie took only 15 days to film and is set in some of the most picturesque places of Austria like Salzburg , Graz , and Vienna . From the architecture and lush mountainous backdrops, to the faces of the Austrian people, the cinematography is stunning.

To Do Whatsoever is Gentle and Human

You might wonder why there isn’t more drama, more investigators with major issues, more Herculean battles with the powers of darkness as seen in other LDS films. The big showdown of the movie is a heated confrontation between Sister Taylor and Sister Keller followed by a rough and tumble race to the phone. Yep. That’s it. And that’s exactly what I loved about it. If you’ve been on a mission, you learn later if not sooner, that the most important work to be done is within your companionship.

Mission Presidents must receive specific instruction to purposely pair missionaries that do not gel. As tough as it is, it makes individuals dig within and find a way to care about someone they would never choose to live with, let alone, love. “To do whatsoever is gentle and human” in these situations necessitates humility.

And that is the journey of discovery for Sister Taylor. While learning the lesson of loving her neighbor (a bit of advice she receives from Sister Young), she realizes her closest neighbor is her companion, Sister Keller.

One of Johnson’s favorite moments in the movie is when Taylor collapses on her knees in a Jewish Cemetery where the Sisters are providing service. In a secluded spot she puts her weaknesses before God and asks for his help. Johnson loves this part because there are times in her life when she says she has been that person – exhausted and compelled to give her life over to the Lord in prayer.

God answers Taylor through lines and precepts as the movie goes on. But in that desperate moment, she finds hope in the kind face of a Jewish woman who comes to a nearby grave to pay her respects and happens upon Taylor crying. I loved the interplay here of God’s children, religion aside – because God uses all who desire it, for good.

Another favorite moment for Johnson is a more humorous one. Ironically, it is the antithesis of being “gentle and human”. Taylor and her companion are welcomed into a seemingly friendly German couple’s apartment. The couple believes Sister Taylor and Sister Young are “missionaries from America “. They do not, however, understand which church the Sisters represent. As a discussion ensues, Taylor becomes preoccupied with a tray of cookies offered them. Boorishly munching and talking at the same time, she is oblivious to the disconnect about to erupt. As the couple compliments and praises them for their stalwart service, Taylor , between mouthfuls, brings up the Book of Mormon. Immediately, the husband and wife become silent, their countenances change, the cookie plate is deliberately withdrawn, and the Sisters are asked to leave. How quickly the tenor of a missionary conversation can change!

A Gift that as Sisters We Claim

When I asked Johnson what she hoped viewers would take from the film, her answer was open-ended. Maybe women will be inspired to serve missions. Maybe returned missionaries will feel validated after watching it. The truth is – she said – viewers will get whatever they need to get out of it.

Johnson encourages individuals to ask themselves, “Who are you in the film? Are you Sister Taylor? Sister Keller? The new convert? The investigator?” She decided early on that the film would not be about her will or her ego. She trusts that God will help people find whatever they need to find in the movie.

Will we see more from Johnson? I hope so. She wrote a second shorter script for the LDS Film Festival last year – just to prove to herself that she could do it on her own. Already, she has a story in mind for this year. Personally, I would love to see Johnson and Vuissa collaborate again.