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Movie review: Liberian missionaries make a journey of faith in 'Freetown'

"FREETOWN" — 3½ stars — Henry Adofo, Michael Attram, Alphonse Menyo, Phillip Michael, Clement Amegayie, Bright Dodoo, Great Ejiro, Nuong Faalong, Bill Myers, Godwin Namboh, Garrett Batty, Adam Abel; PG-13 (thematic situations involving violence); limited release

Faith is exhausting. That is the message of “Freetown,” the new film from Garrett Batty, the director of 2013’s “The Saratov Approach.”

Like “Saratov,” “Freetown” recounts a true story. Set in Africa in 1989, the film follows a group of missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as they attempt to flee the growing civil war in Liberia.

When we join the story, months of conflict between Liberian rebels and local tribes is beginning to boil over. Members of the ruling Krahn tribe are being executed in the streets, and Mormon missionary work has been brought to a standstill.

One Sunday morning, the local mission leader, Brother Abubakar (Henry Adofo), decides to pack up the half-dozen missionaries under his care and head for Freetown, a city just across the border in Sierra Leone. The group crams into his car — a tiny red Japanese compact car with over 300,000 miles on the odometer — and heads out on a two-day journey across undeveloped roads and rebel checkpoints.

The group encounters opposition in many forms, but “Freetown’s” key antagonist shows up just before they set off. Ansa (Bill Myers) is a local rebel leader with a personal axe to grind when it comes to the Krahn. He identifies one of the missionaries as a Krahn (Elder Gaye, played by Phillip Michael) and pursues the group with a homicidal determination.

All of this leads to some very tense moments as the missionaries confront agitated rebels and other obstacles along the road. Time after time, they encounter roadblocks, both literal and figurative, only to find miraculous means to move on to the next stage of the journey.

The experience is intentionally exhausting, and Batty uses some well-timed humor to lighten the tone. Though the missionaries are the focus, Abubakar is the true protagonist, and the test of his faith becomes the centerpiece of “Freetown’s” narrative journey.

One of “Freetown’s” biggest triumphs is the way it maximizes a comparatively small budget. Rather than relying on a lot of close-up shots that betray a lack of funding and production, Batty uses drone cameras and overhead shots to give the audience a Hollywood-level perspective of “Freetown’s” setting.

It’s also interesting to note how “Freetown” continues a theme Batty mined in “Saratov.” On the surface, both films explore “missionaries in danger” scenarios taken directly from the history books. But at a deeper level, both films are asking questions about the endurance of faith while confronting violent circumstances with non-violent resistance.

The protagonists of both films are given the opportunity to use violence as a means for their deliverance, and based on what contemporary audiences are accustomed to — even in “true” stories — it’s surprising that they don’t follow through.

That isn’t to say “Freetown” is a violence-free film. While Batty never opts for any graphic content, he also doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of the conflict. Victims may be killed off-camera, but their innocence is felt center stage.

In total, “Freetown” delivers a powerful message despite limited means, and marks another success for an emerging filmmaker.

“Freetown” is rated PG-13 for some violence and intense sequences; running time: 113 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.