John Chau attended a Christian high school in Vancouver with an 80% Evangelical student body and, having long loved adventure stories, became obsessed with spreading the word of God to the Sentinelese, hunter-gatherers untouched by the outside world on North Sentinel Island in the Andamans. His father, Patrick, was disturbed by this goal, believing it a tainted remnant of colonialism and imperialism, but after speaking his piece and getting his son to go to college first agreed to disagree about “The Mission.”
Laura's Review: A-
Writer/directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss ("Boys State," "The Overnighters") have expanded the 2018 viral news item of John being killed by the Indigenous Sentinelese into a rich examination of the historical ramifications of missionary work on native tribes and the influences that caused him to take such risk. What John attempted to do was actually illegal, India protecting the Sentinelese by forbidding outsiders to enter their island in the Bay of Bengal.
The filmmakers work from sources including John’s diary, which he wrote in right up until the day he died; his secret plan for approaching the Sentinelese; written statements from his father Patrick which are read over comic book inspired animations and interviews with John’s high school friend Levi Davis, historian Adam Goodheart and former missionary Dan Everett. Movie clips and comic book stills illustrate the type of adventures John grew up admiring, the latter including Tintin and ‘Through the Gates of Splendor,’ a Christian comic about 5 young missionaries killed by the Huaorani in Ecuador.
McBaine and Moss set the stage with video of John walking along an Andaman beach as we hear him wondering ‘Is this Satan’s last stronghold?,’ his religious beliefs absolute. But the younger John, the one who loved “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” had once expressed a desire to be a ‘wild man.’ The filmmakers will analyze how the yearning to go native mixed with Evangelical fervor led to death.
While Levi paints a portrait of John as a genuinely nice kid who embraced such Evangelical rules as ‘no porn’ wholeheartedly while he admits most, including himself, did not, Dan expresses admiration for the young man who reminds him of himself at that age. But Dan is now older and wiser, thirty years spent with the Piraha in Brazil having had little impact on them while his own faith waivered as a result. Goodheart outlines the history of colonialism, where indigenous peoples were portrayed either as exotic innocents or cannibalistic barbarians to be ruled by ‘civilized superiors.’ In the 1880s, the Sentinelese were poorly treated by the former Officer in Charge of the Andamans who brought a family to his home in the capital city of Port Blair for eugenics studies and returned the children when their parents died of disease unknown in their natural habitat. Turning focus to John, the Messiah Complex is probed as a byproduct of Evangelicalism as Patrick mourns his reluctance to take a stronger stance with his son.
When we hear it, John’s ‘master plan’ for gaining Sentinelese trust almost sounds reasonable, but he is determined to follow it through no matter the consequences. He’s warned, laughed at and rebuffed as he approaches their shores (local fisherman were paid off to take him), but John tries again, even after a young boy shoots an arrow through his Bible. After his death, his Church makes him a martyr.
While some questions, such as John’s mother’s part in his religious upbringing and the effect of his death on his parents’ marriage, are left mostly unanswered, “The Mission” is a thoughtful and well laid out analysis of a preventable tragedy.
Robin's Review: B
There is an old saying, if you believe in such things, that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” If that is the case, then the short life and untimely and brutal death of missionary John Alan Chau, at age 28, is the story of that road taken in “The Mission.”
OK, late in life, I switched from being an agnostic – a person who believes that god does not exist but does not have the balls to admit it – to an outright atheist – someone who knows that there is no god.
So, when I sat down to watch the story of the life and death of a Christian missionary in our modern world, I was skeptical about his belief. Then, the story of John Alan Chau and his dedication to spreading the word of Jesus Christ played out and all I can say is, with the facts and dangers laid out, the twenty-something was, at least, naïve, and more likely stupid and clueless.
Essentially, Chau, who wet his toes in missionary work in Mexico and South America, decides to make the big leap and, single handed, bring the word of god to the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island. The island is one of the Andaman Island chain in the Bay of Bengal off of India and is under the Aboriginal Tribe Act of 1956 and is protected from outsiders to preserve their heritage and isolation.
The missionary fanaticism that Chau declared in his plans to convert the Sentinelise to Christianity seems reasonable, But the law prohibits outsiders from coming within five nautical miles of the island to prevent outside disease and contamination of the islanders. Oh, and there were reports that some of the locals practiced cannibalism.
The actual hypothesis of Chau’s demise, since there were no real witnesses, is almost perfunctorily handled and, as a result, anticlimactic. I have a hard time with religious fanaticism in any form so my opinion of Chau and his heartfelt resolve to preach Jesus’ word is not positive. Unexplored, Chau would still be alive.
Religions, I believe, are at the heart of many of the world’s problems in many ways. “The Mission” is just one example.
National Geographic opens “The Mission” in select theaters on 10/13/23, expanding in subsequent weeks. Click here for play dates.