Directors : Amanda McBaineJesse Moss
Writers : Amanda McBaineJesse Moss
Stars : Pam ArlundDan DavisLevi Davis
In 2018, an Evangelical Christian man named John Chau embarked on a clandestine journey to North Sentinel Island, home to one of the last voluntarily “uncontacted” tribes on Earth. The islanders enjoy the protection of the Indian government and have deliberately avoided contact with the modern world, their hostile disposition towards uninvited outsiders making it strictly forbidden. Nonetheless, the 26-year-old Chau defied the advice of his family and attempted to share his Christian beliefs with the islanders, a mission that tragically led to his death by arrow during his second visit.
Chau’s compelling story is the central focus of “The Mission,” a new documentary directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, known for their work on “Boys State.” Drawing from Chau’s extensive diaries and a heartfelt letter from his grieving father, the film employs actors to depict the decision-making process that drove Chau to break international laws and sacrifice his life for his faith. Real interviews with Chau’s friends, confidantes, and former Christian missionaries who abandoned their faith after similar journeys complement the recreated scenes. Together, these elements offer a multi-dimensional portrayal of Chau as a young man propelled by genuine spiritual conviction, an insatiable hunger for recognition, and a naiveté that often leads to tragic outcomes.
The film also presents the people of North Sentinel Island in a respectful light, backed by years of research that validates their choice to remain isolated from the outside world as a decision informed by decades of historical context, rather than mere ignorance.
Chau’s ill-fated expedition, and the circumstances that led to it, provides the rich subject matter that documentary filmmaking thrives on. While it is apparent that Chau’s mission was destined for failure, McBaine and Moss explore the cultural factors that shaped him. They reveal how Chau’s obsession with reaching North Sentinel Island arose from a convergence of several influences: an organized religion that places a strong emphasis on missionary work, a childhood filled with consumption of “adventure” media featuring encounters with native populations, and a society that places a premium on individual glory to the extent that martyrdom seems like a viable option. While Chau’s sincerity in his faith is never in doubt, he represents a strain of Christianity that, when combined with American individualism, often does more harm than good.
“The Mission” serves as a thought-provoking exploration of Chau’s story and the complex web of influences that led him down this path. However, the film’s conclusion, which narrowly blames religion itself, misses the broader message that it otherwise conveys so effectively. The film contends that Chau’s narrative transcends religion and missionary endeavors, emphasizing the need for individuals to recognize that life isn’t a simple storybook where they are the heroes.