THE STORY – American missionary John Chau attempts to make contact with an Indigenous group off the coast of India, one of the last communities on Earth still living in isolation.
THE CAST – Pam Arlund, Dan Davis, Levi Davis, Daniel Everett, Adam Goodheart, Mary Ho, Arin Okada, T.N. Pandit, Jimmy Shaw, Cameron Silsbee & Cassie Simons
THE TEAM – Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes
On November 15th, 2018, 26-year-old American Missionary John Allen Chau fulfilled his long-gestating dream of reaching the uncontacted indigenous tribe on North Sentinel Island, India. He had long hoped to do what no one had been able to do before: make peaceful contact with the tribe, preach to them, and convert them to Christianity. Two days later, Chau’s dead body was observed on the shore. Chau’s illegal and fateful mission proved controversial, sparking arguments and debates on the appropriateness of his journey to this day. Now, the new documentary “The Mission” investigates this expedition, its aftermath, and how it reflects the state of Christianity and missions as a whole. It’s a challenging film that’s as thorough as it is thought-provoking.
Chau knew that death was a possibility of taking this mission on. Or, more accurately, he knew death was the most likely outcome. Others had died trying to reach the Sentinelese people throughout the last century. India made travel to the island illegal in 1956, preventing outsiders from breaching the uncontacted people. Nevertheless, Chau plowed on, becoming almost consumed with the idea of reaching these people for Jesus. Why did this become Chau’s fixation? Were his intentions pure, or did he want to be some sort of superhero? Who egged him on or inspired him? Chau’s death leaves so many questions unanswered, both for his family and people worldwide who heard of his story.
Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (“Boys State”) use many techniques to explore the story and the numerous questions it begs. While Chau’s family declined to be interviewed for the film, Chau’s father, Patrick, provided an extensive statement about his son. Voice actors read Chau’s diaries and his father’s letter, while animated recreations help the journey come to life. The wide range of interviews in “The Mission” also provides a fair and thorough investigation of Chau’s journey and the Sentinelese but also helps zoom out to ask questions about religious missions as a whole. Multiple pastors who taught or worked with Chau were interviewed, though some pointedly declined to participate, along with some former Christian missionaries. These conversations give a three-dimensional portrait of Chau’s obsession with reaching these people.
Did Chau have a martyr complex, desiring to die for what he believed? Or was it a hero complex, hoping to valiantly save the oppressed? Did he long to be revered as a martyr, or did he want to be praised as some sort of Christian Indiana Jones-type, trekking into the unknown? “The Mission” delves deeply into the culture surrounding Chau, seeking out just how much his environment helped feed whatever drove him. Evangelical circles often emphasize mission work as the height of Christian life or deify martyrs as the ultimate display of faith. Chau’s father, a psychiatrist, often makes his own clinical observations of what could’ve led to his son’s death. He points at how John’s obsession with adventure stories like “Robinson Crusoe” and “Tintin,” when paired with stories heard in church about saving people in far-off lands, could easily seduce a young man into wanting to be a hero in the same vein.
As “The Mission” investigates Chau’s journey, it’s sometimes forced to be a bit speculative. Though it’s still quite effective, without access to his family or many close friends, questions are left unexplored, and a perspective is missed. When the film shifts to broader ideas about the purpose and appropriateness of religious missions around the world, it’s much sharper—interviewing anthropologists, former missionaries, and experts on North Sentinel Island, challenging those who might seek to deify Chau and others like him.
Even so, “The Mission” never feels like a hit piece on Western Christianity or even missions as a whole. It doesn’t broadly paint Chau as some sort of villain but as a piece in a bigger puzzle. Moss and McBaine don’t shy away from true and ugly observations, but the film feels like it gives Chau and others like him a fair hearing. “The Mission” is genuinely captivating, exploring Chau’s story and the culture surrounding him with a fair but thorough eye. It’s a challenging investigation of the line between madness and faith that leaves so much to think about.