One Sunday in Munich where, aside from church bells chiming, nothing happens, I was telling a colleague about how Ghana was overrun by missionaries soliciting money for churches that he and I had never heard of – and never would. My doorbell rang. I opened to a dark-suited young man clutching a book, who asked in faltering German if he could talk with me about God. "Um Gottes Willen, nein!" I returned to my conversation but could not forget the coincidence.
Once a month, the local U-Bahn was flooded with young white men in dark suits, white shirts and name tags identifying them as "Elders" of the Kirche Jesu Christi der Heiligen der Letzten Tage. Very loud and totally out of place, they were en route to the office of the President of Mormon Missionaries in southern Germany. I'd change subway cars.
One afternoon, a girl seated across from me with the same style name tag identifying her as "Schwester" did her utmost to strike up a conversation. She impressed me as goofy but nice. I began to wonder about the girls and the boys and sought her out. (My earliest awareness of Mormons had been their ostracism of a female believer who advocated for Utah's passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.) That young woman and her "companion" stimulated my research into Mormon missionaries.
After the first shoot – of three young men in Salt Lake City opening their "calls to serve" in the bosom of their families – the producer pulled out, insisting I sell him my concept. No way! Although the Mormon "President and Living Prophet" was an old ad man who, recognizing the value of any publicity, was ready to give non-Mormons greater access, it was my two years' research and efforts to build a good relationship with the German-born president of the Munich mission that had won me the authorization to film.
I was allowed to document three young men – on the condition that I only show someone who successfully finished a mission. That meant I had to shoot all the major events in the life of a young Mormon missionary three times so that if one – or two – dropped out, I would still be able to show a representative mission. That translated into 271 tapes.
Contact with a young woman was only possible long after the shoot began. My research convinced me that it's a boys' story so although I eventually was able to also film a "sister", partly also due to her disinterest, she's not in the finished film.
With my concept centered around the mission as a rite of passage, it was crucial to shoot the next big event: the boys' entrance into the Missionary Training Center. That meant learning to produce on the job, with a 24-month shoot ahead and virtually no film contacts or funding. At that terrifying moment, I received valuable tips from Bachir Attar (by that time, a number of documentary filmmakers had visited Jajouka), as well as from Albert Maysles, one of the makers of the classic American documentary film, Salesman, whose assistant Xan Parker, was a huge help. Then, in a ladies' bathroom at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA), Ella Werner of YLE (Finland) gave me great tactical advice and arranged a pre-sale, and after shooting well over a year, Gunnar Walther helped me make a trailer that was decisive in GET THE FIRE! receiving significant funding from ITVS. I'm forever indebted to Gunnar.